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Just the Facts? Law Enforcement’s Fight against Fake News and Cybercrime

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By Andrew Bellfaculty member, Criminal Justice with American Military University and Bruce Razey35-year police veteran

A recent Facebook post claimed that a famous actor and his son were killed in a car accident. Another post showed a prominent politician appearing drunk. Both articles looked real, however, with a little follow-up it became clear that they were both inaccurate and intentionally misleading.

It may seem ridiculous to spend much time thinking about either of these examples. However, they both represent an ongoing and worsening trend. Are you finding it harder and harder to tell fact from fiction? Are you becoming skeptical about who or what to believe? You are not alone. Technology has advanced so quickly that it is relatively easy for anyone with basic software to make something that never happened look real. So real, in fact, a new phrase was coined calling such activity “deep fakes.” According to recent studies, Americans rate fake news as a larger problem than racism, climate change, and terrorism and some believe it is putting the future of democracy at risk.

As a former Economic Crime Unit (ECU) detective, Bell investigated fraud and criminal schemes. One thing all ECU detectives know is that there is a thin line between criminal and civil matters. Could these seemingly harmless fake news posts represent the potential criminal activity?

Connection between Fake News and Cybercrime

In the U.S., fake news is on the fringe of cybercrime. On its face, fake news does not seem like a crime. However, some countries have already deemed the creation of fake news a crime and have started prosecuting people for it.

 [Related: Countering Criminals’ Attempts to Destroy Digital Evidence]

In the U.S., everyone has a First Amendment right to free speech, which allows them, in essence, to say whatever they want whether it’s true or false. In order for fake news to be considered a crime in the U.S., it must be weaponized and shown that there was intent to commit some criminal act like theft or destruction of property. To be considered a cybercrime, there must be a thread from the information in the fake news leading to a crime like election interference or other criminal acts.

As with all social issues, law enforcement plays a significant role and is on the front lines addressing potential threats posed by the spread of false information and the connection to cybercrime. However, many agencies and officers are not properly educated, equipped, trained, or generally prepared to tackle such problems.

Why Cybercrime is So Challenging for Law Enforcement

Cyber (computer) fraud crimes are not new. However, as the technology improves and the Internet of Things (IoT) connects us all, it is easier for criminals to commit cybercrime and harder for the justice system to prosecute it. In some EU countries, cybercrime has surpassed all other types of crime, and some believe those reported are only the tip of the iceberg.

[Free Magazine Download: Protecting Against Cyberattacks: A Guide for Public Safety Leaders]

With the rapid growth of cybercrime, one would think law enforcement would be ready to identify and investigate criminal cyber fraud. However, that is far from reality. In a publication called “Going Dark” that discusses privacy rights that limit the FBI’s ability to conduct criminal investigations even the FBI Cyber Division acknowledges that it cannot keep up with technology.

Money and power are driving forces in the growth of cybercrime. The manipulation happening on social media magnets like Facebook is, at a minimum, sending subliminal messages to people, playing to their physical and neurological weaknesses in an effort to persuade them one way or another. At its worst, these networks are brainwashing people into believing what they (the rich and powerful) want. According to a recent Netflix documentary, “The Great Hack,” this trend will continue and only worsen.

Police and governments are outgunned and appear to be ambivalent about tackling cybercrime. Even though people rate fake news more seriously than terrorism, studies show that most police officers, police departments, and even prosecutors are not equipped to handle cybercrime cases and don’t believe the threat is comparable to traditional crimes.

One of the biggest problems is that most cops are not properly trained and do not have the computer skills or the confidence to investigate cybercrimes. They also aren’t prepared to help citizens who are victims of cybercrimes.

[Related: Collaboration is the Only Solution to Fight Cybersecurity Threats]

Average citizens are under attack: Many are coerced to submit personal information, purchase something they don’t need, or pay for something they don’t get. AARP magazine is full of warnings about the next scam, and local police have few, if any, tools to combat these crimes. If you call your local police, you might be lucky if the officer takes a report and sends it to a detective. Most of the time, police will likely tell you to call your bank or some other organization and the cybercrime will never be solved.

This leads to the most concerning result, the erosion of trust in the justice system. Not only is the government failing to protect citizens from cybercrime, but these crimes are slowly tipping the scales of justice in favor of those who commit such acts.

How Police Can Improve their Ability to Investigate Cybercrimes

In order to remedy the injustices associated with cybercrimes, law enforcement agencies must take these steps:

Build Awareness about Investigating Cybercrimes. Patrol officers are the gateway of the criminal justice system and will likely always be first responders to the criminal and social ills of society. Therefore, they must be educated on the 5Ws (who, what, where, when and why) and the how to report cybercrimes. Without proper investigation processes, these crimes likely won’t be investigated or solved.

Enhanced Cyber Training and Education. Detectives need special computer skills and resources to investigate cybercrimes. Officers must receive computer-based training to improve their cyber skills and literacy so they can better understand and investigate cybercrimes.

Just like investigating traditional crimes, officers must take a “trust but verify” approach to cybercrime cases. Anything can look real initially: crimes, evidence, alibis, and so on. Detectives must trust but verify information they receive from victims and witnesses.

As investigative supervisors, we would occasionally be approached by detectives who would say, “I think the victim is lying to me.” Our response was, “can you prove it?” If not, the information provided must stand. Police need to get better at proving fraud.

Collaborate with and Create Cyber Fusion Centers. Police departments and their detectives should work with prosecutors and other government agencies to determine what cyber-related crimes to investigate. That thin line between a fraud and a criminal matter is blurry and some crimes may need to be reviewed by several legal professionals to determine the potential for investigation and prosecution.

However, even if something is deemed non-criminal in its current application, it could still be a future threat. Therefore, police should report all cyber-related incidents to organizations like the Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and FBI Cyber Division that work with other local, state, and federal agencies to build cases and connect the dots among difference sources of information.

Enhance the Police and Citizen Bond. Let’s not forget the Community Oriented Policing (COP) officers’ role in preventing cybercrime. This officer, who works closely with members of the public, has an excellent opportunity to discuss fake news and cybercrimes with citizens. Also, COP officers have vast resources available to educate the public about how to check sources and figure out the truth for themselves. This interaction builds trust and transparency between the government and citizens. Remember Peel’s Principle, “police are citizens and citizens are the police.”

Technology Innovations for All Officers. Today, when a patrol officer takes a report for a cybercrime, it must be handled by a detective. However, in the future, we believe the average patrol officer will be equipped with the smart technology to identify fraud. Eventually, this technology will become available to everyone, just like pepper spray and other less-than-lethal weapons for combating ordinary street crime.

We also see the need for smart technology that identifies the criminal’s digital signature in a criminal database, just like the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) and Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) for fingerprints and DNA. Someday the average patrol cops will know the common local cybercriminal just as today they know the local burglar. Like handling other crimes, law enforcement must be diligent in addressing cybercrime via prevention and apprehension using computer algorithms to identify where and when a cybercrime might occur.

Police Must Constantly Improve Cyber-Readiness

Police have their work cut out for them. By improving officers’ computer proficiency skills, working closely with national resources to track cybercrimes, and conducting outreach efforts to help citizens identify fake news and potential cybercrimes, law enforcement agencies will do a better job of combating the fastest growing and increasingly harmful world of cybercrime.

About the Authors:

Andrew Bell has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience and 25 years in the U.S. military and civilian service. He served as a patrol officer, detective, patrol sergeant, community-policing supervisor, school resource supervisor and detective supervisor. He was called to active duty with U.S. Army Reserve after 9/11 and completed a tour in Afghanistan. Andrew also worked for the U.S. federal government in Army intelligence, Army capabilities unit and emergency operations. He holds a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor of science degree with a concentration in criminal justice. Andrew has been a faculty member of American Military University since 2004.

Bruce Razey began his law enforcement career in 1975. During his 35-year career, he worked for three diverse police departments. Bruce served in patrol operations, special operations and the investigative division. His assignments included field training officer, air unit coordinator/observer, field training supervisor, community policing supervisor, detective supervisor and committee chairman for internal affairs review unit. He served on numerous hiring and promotional boards; authored and co-authored policies and procedures; created lesson plans to instruct new and veteran officers in a variety of topics; and established policy and guidelines for an improved method of conducting police lineups and eye-witness testimony. Bruce holds a bachelor of science degree in criminology from the University of Saint Leo, Florida. He graduated number one from the Regional Police Academy and from the West Point Leadership & Management Training Course.

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