The Usual Sus-PEX

How bank processes opened the door to cyber crime


Ian Hawkins
04/27/2018

PEX is used by organisations large and small to make their operations run more efficiently. This is as true of organised crime as it is of legitimate business, and PEX has directly affected the way crime has changed in a relatively brief period. 

‘Police 5’ was a British TV programme that publicised crimes: my memory is of black-and-white photofits, reenacted robberies and host Shaw Taylor ending each episode with an avuncular 'Keep ‘em peeled!'

But it isn’t just the haircuts and petrol prices that date this episode of the show.  

The crimes themselves are from another age. Show this to a young police officer today and they will ask: where’s the CCTV? The mobile phone log? The number plate recognition?

One of the most popular TV sitcoms of its time, Birds of a Feather, first aired in 1989. The show followed two sisters whose husbands were jailed for armed robbery. The sisters lived in a luxurious house, paid for by this criminal enterprise, in Chigwell, just outside London.

Today, the average armed bank robbery nets a paltry £20,000, out of which come costs (getaway car, disposal of evidence, lawyers’ fees) – and that’s before you split the proceeds.

Meanwhile, a three bed house in Chigwell is on zoopla.co.uk priced at £1,200,000. Good luck paying the mortgage on that in cash (and it’s a brave criminal mastermind who deposits the loot straight back into the vault from which it was just stolen). A robbery or two per month should just about cover it, but at the rate branches are closing, you’ll be looking to factor in a hefty travel budget before your home is paid for.

Crime does not pay, not because some caped crusader has foiled your dastardly plan: the numbers just don’t add up. Your chances of getting caught are so high and the rewards are footling, you might as well get a paper round.

What, you might ask, does all this have to do with PEX?

Data is the raw material we work, and while there are lies, damned lies and statistics, criminal statistics are the trickiest of all.

Crime is like a water balloon; you squeeze it here and it bulges there, and often a crime reduced by one measure can increase elsewhere. The disparity between the number of crimes reported to the police and the actual crimes committed is just one example of where data can mislead.

We worry that crime rates are rising over all but the nature of those crimes is shifting too. Robbery is down by nearly 60,000 cases a year since 2002 in the UK. In the USA the number of bank heists, according to the FBI quoted in the Chicago Tribune, have dropped by 60% in 25 years. As the reformed bank robber quoted in the Tribune says, ‘There's a lot of easier ways to make the same amount of money.’

So what’s replaced it? Crime has gone online. Internet security company Kaspersky Lab reported in 2015 that a single hacker collective was able to steal $1 billion from banks around the world. This isn't just shifting figures around on a spreadsheet: they ordered ATMs to dispense hard cash at set times to be collected by the gang.

The idea of masked men bursting into the local bank branch is almost laughable today, even as cyber security is a regular topic of discussion at tech conferences. PEX - including training for bank tellers, security processes, fitting physical security measures and all - has all but eradicated the problem of bank robbery, but the desire of people to get money without working for it has not gone away. Crimes against the person have gone up, fraud has gone up, cyber crime is offering opportunities and rewards to socially isolated hackers that legitimate employers can’t match.   

So we ask ourselves the question: what sort of crime can PEX tackle? And what can we do to avoid simply shifting the problem elsewhere?

Really serious crimes have gone under the radar in a way that may be a thing of the past: human errors in large enquiries have left more than one killer to remain at liberty for too long – but these are precisely the manual mistakes that automation and bots could iron out. Currently the only appetite for the technology seems to be limited to technology  crimes.

This would be timely, but not far reaching enough.

When Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg gave testimony to Congress, it demonstrated the woeful lack of knowledge of politicians. Governments need to educate themselves, take the threat seriously and legislate for the online world – as recent news stories have exposed the exploitation of unpoliced data collection, we have seen how vulnerable we are to attack. At present, the fort is being held by private businesses who understandably don't want to be robbed of money, data or productive time – but without legislation, it’s a pretty wild frontier, and the line between legitimate business and organized criminals is fuzzy because current laws lag behind reality. Our leaders are tending towards the easy path of ‘business as usual’, and it has to change. As TechCrunch says, the Cambridge Analytica  scandal is a 'pivotal juncture in history where tech companies, regulators and lawmakers are actively reviewing the acceptability of evolved social norms'; democracy has a sawn-off shotgun poking it in the ribs, and yet it seems too few of our leaders have noticed.