New media crimes

In major sting operation, police uncover alleged widespread network of blackmail, fraud, kickbacks – you name it.

By JEREMY RUDEN
April 8, 2012 21:52
4 minute read.
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Two alarming items regarding communications in the internet age have come to light over the past week or so. While one is domestic and the other international, both should have civil servants and new media scholars around the world reconsidering established positions on the laws and ethics of cyberspace.

The first is a story which deals with the ever-growing scandal of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) news portal, Be’Hadrai Haredim. The name of the site itself means “In Haredim’s Rooms” but is a play on words which means behind closed doors. That could not be more appropriate.

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In a major sting operation, police uncovered what they are claiming is a widespread network of blackmail, fraud, kickbacks – you name it. The site’s management and employees allegedly extorted large sums of money from top members of the ultra-Orthodox community including rabbis, businessmen and even Knesset members. The idea was simple – pay up or be smeared on the premiere haredi news site.

“Clients” were approached and told of a story that the site had which could damage their “good name” and standing in the community. Even if it wasn’t true, reputation is very important in the haredi community. Investigators say that millions in hush money was paid out and the scope of this scandal is much wider than they originally thought. The site is also said to have sold positive articles for money.

If true, this case is absolutely appalling on every possible level and those responsible should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Unfortunately, I’m sure that this case is far from unprecedented.

I’m sure that back in the day when there were few news sources, blackmailing people by promising to publish/not publish a certain story was widespread.

Nowadays though, when there are more and more news websites, what I find the most surprising is that this racket was allegedly going on for over two years. Keeping something like this under wraps for such a long time is no easy feat. Were people that afraid of the whistle-blowing consequences or are there other elements in play? In all that time, did the victims of Be’Hadrai Haredim not feel that the site had a strong enough competitor to turn to and blow open the story? In any event, this is gives us a rare insight into mass media in the orthodox world and should be followed closely.

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I will say that I believe the police went a bit too far in asking the attorney-general to order the site to shut down in hopes that would encourage more people to come forward and testify. The government should only use such powers to close a media outlet in cases of national security, if at all. Surely the site’s credibility is completely shot by now. Who would believe its content at this point? Investigators must be able to make their case without resorting to these measures.

The second item is more of a revelation, and comes courtesy of Richard Clarke who served as counter-terrorism czar under three US presidents. Clarke is someone worth listening to. He’s the guy who tried to warn the G. W. Bush administration of an al-Qaida attack on American soil in early 2001. He resigned in 2003 and the next year he went public with his knowledge and famously testified in front of the 9/11 commission, apologizing to the American people.

“Your government failed you,” he said.

Clarke wrote an editorial in The New York Times earlier this month mapping out the severity of cyber-crime in the United States, particularly attacks which target American businesses. I always knew that the espionage in cyberspace is a problem, but I never realized just how big a problem.

In the piece and other interviews, Clarke says that the Chinese have hacked their way into every major company in the US. The names he mentions couldn’t be more familiar – Citibank, Google, EMC, Lockheed, Nasdaq and others. Chinese hackers are allegedly stealing American corporate research and secrets worth billions of dollars and Washington is stumbling in its reaction.

According to Clarke, the US Congress can’t reach an agreement on if and how to protect the private sector from such threats and is urging President Obama to take unilateral action immediately. He suggests that under the Customs authority, the government could inspect what comes in and out of the United States via cyberspace. Clarke was sparse on the logistical details but basically he’s proposing to at least stop the loot from being stolen, even if the thief will not be caught.

One of the main problems is the right to privacy. If any government were to monitor and collect the data being sent through cyberspace, think of how easy it will be to abuse. Think of how many more “Be’Hadrai Haredim” cases there could be if everyone’s information was out there for others to see. On the other hand, it must be in every country’s interest to protect domestic business from international espionage. The recent cyber-attacks here in Israel which targeted credit card numbers proved to us that these problems exist here as well.

The time has come to admit that the rules of the game have changed. Cyberspace is no-man’s-land where information is changing hands randomly and often illegally. People are taking information and abusing it on all scales. We all know that, like money, knowledge is power. So why shouldn’t we safeguard knowledge like we safeguard money? Every government has the obligation to get involved by taking cyber threats just as seriously as “real world” ones be it blackmail attempts or flesh and blood espionage. Let’s just hope it won’t be too little too late before criminals and enemies of a free societies get the upper hand.

The author is an independent media consultant Jeremy@jeremyruden.com

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