Reports that Mexico is now the world leader in cyber crime highlight the growth in the Americas of this emerging high-profit and low-risk branch of organized crime, which, according to some estimates, is capable of making more money globally than the drug trade.
Mexican Representative Rodrigo Perez-Alonso, who heads the Congress Special Commission on Digital Access, said in February 2011 that the country has more reported incidents of cyber crime than anywhere else in the world, with police handling almost 1,400 complaints of this type of activity in 2009. More than half of these were fraud, according to his figures, with the second most prevalent complaint being online threats and harassment, followed by the sexual exploitation of children.
The congressman’s warning about Mexico suffering from cyber crime is backed by a study released by software giant Microsoft in October 2010 which showed that, relative to its number of computers, Mexico came third in the world in terms of infections by “bots,” malicious software programs such as viruses that can be used to hijack computers, following South Korea and Spain.
Figures differ on which types of cyber crime are most common Mexico, with a 2009 report by security firm Grupo Multisistemas de Seguridad Industrial finding that the most-reported cyber crimes in the country are piracy and information stealing (e.g. through “spyware”), which together made up 60 percent of cyber crime. This was followed by fraud at 20 percent, hacking at 10 percent, and sabotage at 7 percent, while child pornography, along with invasion of privacy, unauthorized access, and interception of emails, only made up 3 percent.
This list shows the variety of activities that are included within “cyber crime.” The term covers both crimes that have been created by advances in technology, like the use of malicious hardware to steal information or hijack computers for criminal purposes such as mass spam send-outs, and the use of technology to facilitate pre-existing crimes such as exchanging child pornography or committing financial fraud.
Both types of cyber crime are linked with organized crime networks worldwide. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warns that “traditional” criminal groups are increasingly using developments in information technology to “coordinate activities and enhance the commission of crimes.” The body says that the growth in technology has made it easier for these groups to move money across borders, plan and coordinate activities, and communicate anonymously, and has spurred them to get involved in new forms of revenue generation, such as piracy and the online sale of counterfeit goods.
One example of a profitable criminal business made easier by the Internet is commercial sexual exploitation, particularly the production and distribution of child pornography. Mexico is a hotspot for this type of crime, with reports of some 20,000 minors forced into prostitution. Spanish NGO Alia2 found that Mexico is in the top three countries in the word in terms of the volume of exchange of files likely to contain child pornography, while Representative Perez-Alonso said that the country is second in the world in term of production of this type of material.
Mexico is also a hub of human trafficking networks, which can make use of the Internet to organize their business deals. In 2009 there were reports of Mexican criminals using online chat rooms to try to sell a baby.
Even Mexico’s most infamous drug-trafficking gangs may be branching out into cyber crimes to increase profits; it was reported in February 2011 that fake Microsoft software stamped with the logo of Mexican cartel the Familia had been found on sale in Mexico. The cartels have also made use of the new opportunities provided by the Internet to distribute videos online in order to make threats and communicate with the public.
The issue of cyber crime affects the whole region. A 2010 report by security company Zscaler found that, while the majority of the world’s malicious web traffic came from the U.S., seven of the ten countries with the highest proportion of malicious servers to benign servers were in Latin America, specifically Honduras, Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Paraguay, Ecuador, and Colombia. Although the number of malicious servers was still relatively small, their preponderance was very large, demonstrating the rapid growth of cyber crime relative to Internet use in the region. Statistics from February 2011 show that more than 17 percent of the world’s spam now comes from Latin America.
In terms of absolute numbers of bot infections the Microsoft study linked above found that Brazil came second worldwide and Mexico fifth, while Colombia, Argentina and Chile were also in the top 20. A 2010 report by security firm Symantec found that Brazil was responsible for 6 percent of global malicious activity, including spam, phishing hosts, and bot-infected computers.
This growth in cyber crime in Mexico and Latin America in general is tied to the region’s rapid economic development and the accompanying popularization of Internet access and spread of broadband connections, as well as to the same under-regulation and lax policing that allow other types of organized crime to flourish. The spread of cyber crime is also due to the large informal economy and under-enforcement of copyright laws, with the wide use of pirated software products being one factor that explains the large rate of bot infections. The authorities will have to move fast to keep up with this expanding branch of organized crime.