Addressing Online Foreign Influencing and Foreign Criminals – An Armchair Ethics Post

Today is unlike any other in the ability of those living in other countries to communicate with individuals thousands of kilometers away, and to attack them through malicious actions including Spam, Phishing, and other harmful hacking tactics. The propensity of foreign actors to influence citizens in another country such as Canada and in negative terms, appears to only be growing. Well known examples include Spam pushers in Africa and India, while Russian actors have gone so far as to attempt and in fact succeeded in foreign influence of election outcomes in the United States.

The question now is what measures must be taken to stop these attacks on our citizens and political bodies? Should it be that we increase restrictions on internet usage, curtail internet freedoms, in an attempt to prevent harmful attacks? Alternatively, must we keep all our freedoms including online freedoms, with the answer lying with enhanced foreign cooperation in policing of these hackers and influencers? Is that possible with Russia, China, North Korea, and criminal elements in other countries that are behind these attacks? This short Armchair Ethics Post brings up the discussion through an ethical lens on what to do about international internet criminals.

Let’s first look at the problem. In everyone’s daily inbox, spam from foreign countries is being sent to Canadian citizens that if successful create a criminal action including loss of money, can create a situation of extortion, and numerous other possible crimes. These criminals, however, are not in the jurisdiction of Canadian courts. If the originating source is North Korea, Russia, or China, then there is no recourse on these daily attacks on Canadian citizens that aim to steal, extort, and otherwise harm. If it were not done online, surely international conflict would have broken out much sooner. It is time to see online criminals as having no distinction between those offline. It is unclear to the common citizen given the high level of occurrence, that this distinction is anything but well in place today despite its clearly erroneous delineation.

Similarly, foreign state actors are coordinating malicious actions abroad through simple online social media platforms, message boards, or known communication points. While foreign influence into elections has generated a reaction from the likes of Facebook, and Twitter, more sophisticated attempts to exert foreign influence through smaller, more precise actions are far more difficult to stop and curtail. In the common example of a foreign actor subverting political or corporate strategies, messages can easily be shared on how to act, when to act, and on what, through a small degree of preparation and sharing of messages on even the simplest of online communication features such as the comments section of an item for sale, or YouTube video as examples. While we can rely on Facebook and Twitter to protect against widespread election tampering, precise attacks would be considerably more difficult to detect and prevent, while at the same time potentially having a greater impact.

When we think about how to stop foreign influence through online communication, the decision balances on curtailing freedoms, by perhaps limiting free speech and its method of expression, versus the potential damage of this foreign actors, and its subsequent outcomes. With the near total inability to police from a far and into another sovereign nation, this poses a unique challenge in the twenty-first century for global security forces. Resorting to international sanctions for crimes of this nature has not happened in the past. Typically, international sanctions are for state actors e.g. Senior Politicians, and Military Personnel, not the criminal who is stealing $1000 from a citizen online. Perhaps the times must change. If these perpetrators are seen to be going without consequence while harming Canadian citizens on a large-scale, international sanctions should be used as a tool to push foreign Governments and their police to act.

It is not suggested that internet freedoms be curtailed to stop foreign criminals from performing international criminal acts. That would be defeatist and is punitive to the victims rather than the criminals while at the same time likely to do little in stopping the problems in the long term. A joint international criminal action agreement for online crimes should be developed and funded as the solution. This agreement would be signed by those whose citizens are the perpetrators and should have both a national response plan implemented locally, while including international measures for non-compliance in these enforcement plans. Agreements on timelines and outcomes should have real benefits for compliance that can sufficiently encourage the likes of Russia, and China to cooperate. To be effective, what these benefits entail should originate, to as high a degree as possible, from those whose cooperation is needed in the enforcement of international crimes carried out online.

While not all online crimes can be prevented, it is past-due for foreign criminals who routinely and on a daily basis attempt to steal from Canadian citizens, be given a spotlight in political and national discourse. It must be known that actions are being taken to stop these criminals rather than nearly filtering as best possible. Everyone seems to know someone whose fallen for their tactics which shows the extent of these crimes. We must see them for what they are, criminals, and not just mere annoyances. Their intent is to steal, extort, and otherwise cause harm. The Canadian Government must reassure its citizens something is being done. The time when it is said to a victim “little can be done” is past and is wholly unacceptable today.