From Crowdsourcing to Crime-sourcing: The Rise of Distributed Criminality

Crowdsourcing began as a legitimate tool to leverage the wisdom of the crowds to solve complex business and scientific challenges. Unfortunately, these very same techniques are increasingly being adopted by the criminal underground for nefarious purposes.

Crowdsourcing began as a legitimate tool to leverage the wisdom of the crowds to solve complex business and scientific challenges. Unfortunately, these very same techniques are increasingly being adopted by the criminal underground for nefarious purposes.


The concept of crowdsourcing first gained widespread attention in an article written in 2006 by Jeff Howe for Wired Magazine. Howe defined crowdsourcing as the act of outsourcing a task to a large, undefined group of people through an open call.

The increasing application of crowdsourcing is changing "business as usual" in a wide variety of industries. In a noted example, Don Tapscott, in his book Wikinomics, described how one Canadian gold mining company facing a looming shutdown desperately turned to the general public to help solve a critical business problem. The company, Goldcorp, was so frustrated with the inability of its own geologists to locate any gold that it did something unheard of at the time: it offered $500,000 to anyone who could find and map the location of the company's own gold in its own mines. To facilitate the effort, Goldcorp posted their full datasets online. After receiving submissions from more than a thousand people in 50 different countries, Goldcorp achieved the success that had so eluded the firm previously. A member of the public used Goldcorp's data to make an incredible discovery and to locate more than $3 billion worth of gold using techniques never previously employed in the mining industry.

While numerous productive examples of crowdsourcing such as the Goldcorp case have been documented over time, these very same techniques increasingly are being exploited for criminal purposes as well.

Crime and the crowd

The growing popularity of crowdsourcing has not gone unnoticed, either, by international organized crime groups and local neighborhood thugs, each of which is quickly updating its tactics to drive operational efficiencies. Welcome to the world of "crime-sourcing." Borrowing from Howe's concept, crime-sourcing can be defined as the act of taking the whole or part of a criminal act and outsourcing it to a crowd of either witting or unwitting individuals.

The growth in crime-sourcing is shaking up long-standing business models and traditions within the criminal underground and is leading to innovations in crime. For example, all organized crime groups have historically looked upon outsiders with great suspicion: don't trust somebody you don't know and who has not been vetted. Elaborate processes were established, such as the Mafia's Omertà, to ensure newcomers to the criminal enterprise were neither rats nor cops. It would often take years of robberies, loan sharking and murder to gain the trust and confidence of the "boss."

The distributed crime network

As the world turned to globalization, so too did organized crime. Their initial attempts were limited, but generally effective. Drug cartels in Latin American began to work with organized crime groups in Eastern Europe. TheJapanese Yakuza and Chinese Triads developed ties and turned to one another for very specific tasks, such as carrying out a particular "hit" or laundering a large sum of money in a different jurisdiction. Though these disparate crime groups were located in different parts of the world, they found ways to build trust and work together in their joint illicit pursuits.

Eventually, specialties emerged and criminal enterprises learned to outsource all tasks not within their specific areas of expertise. For example, in a standard phishing operation, an organized crime group might commission the creation of a scam web page and contact a secondary broker to get a list of thousands of email addresses. Using another intermediary, the crime group would get access to a compromised computer and rent a botnet to distribute the spam emails for a period of agreed upon time, such as 12 or 24 hours.

As hapless victims readily provided their banking and credit card information, the data would be culled and forwarded to the contracting criminals. The crime group would likely rent a distributed proxy network to obfuscate their true locations and to run transactions against the compromised accounts.

Of course, all this money needs to be received, processed and laundered in a way that protects the criminal enterprise, and there are numerous illicit techniques for hiring unsuspecting participants to take on the task. The most common is to place an ad in a print newspaper or an online publication offering opportunities to "work from home" and make "quick money" as an "importer/exporter."

Using this ruse, organized crime groups have duped thousands into receiving stolen property at their homes and opening shell bank accounts in their own names. After the funds are received in the account of the unwary pawn, he is instructed to immediately send them overseas via Western Union exchange for a small fee or commission. In doing so, the crime groups have crowdsourced the most dangerous part of their business, leaving behind a trail of false leads for law enforcement to find.

Strangers with a common criminal cause

One of the more interesting developments in crowdsourced offenses has been the birth of the crime "flash mob." The practice of crime flash mobs has become so common that the media have now coined a term "flash robs" to describe the ensuing theft and violence. In these cases groups of individual criminals, who may or may not even know each other, are organizing themselves online and suddenly descending into unsuspecting stores to steal all that they can in a flash. The unsuspecting merchant has little he can do when 40 unruly strangers suddenly run into his shop and run off with all his merchandise. Dozens of these cases have occurred, including one in which co-conspirators planned an attack via Facebook and Twitter that lead to the pillaging of a Victoria's Secret store in London.

Sadly, flash mobs are increasingly turning violent as innocent bystanders are being attacked and assaulted in broad daylight. In Chicago in June 2011, dozens descended on a neighborhood street and began assaulting and robbing law-abiding citizens. In the Chicago incident, 15-20 youths dragged a man off his motor scooter and severely beat him. A mere two months later in Philadelphia, a similar incident occurred.

Flash mobs are an advantageous way of crowdsourcing a robbery for the criminals involved. Using the power of the Internet, they are able to assemble an overwhelming force of unrelated strangers. Thus, if any of the participants involved are arrested, they are unlikely to be able to "rat" on their co-conspirators, whom they met for the first time at the scene of the crime.

The crime request hotline

Crime-sourcing reached new heights earlier this year when noted hacking group LulzSec opened up a hacking request hotline for the general public. The group advertised the 614 area code phone number on its Twitter feed and allowed the crowd to select LulzSec's next hacking victim. This new modus operandi in crime-sourcing allows the public to vote, "American Idol"-style, on who shall be the next victim of a crime. The group later released a statement noting that it had successfully launched distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS) against eight sites suggested by callers.

Crime-sourcing's unwitting accomplices

Not all of those who participate in a crowdsourced crime do so knowingly. In fact, employing crowdsourcing techniques, it is increasingly possible for organized crime groups to get hapless innocents to carry out key elements of a crime on their behalf. In one example, the unsuspecting (and the lustful) were enticed to solve a CAPTCHA word puzzle in order to get access to free online pornography.

It seemed like a good deal for the end-user: for each CAPTCHA they solved, a person using the name Melissawould provide access to more and more pornographic images. What the end-user did not know is that, in fact, the CAPTCHAs being solved were being used to break into Yahoo email accounts and steal information. By tapping the public appetite for pornography, organized crime groups were able to create a useful crowdsourced method of automating CAPTCHA solving in order to give them unauthorized access to email accounts.

Crowdsourcing a criminal casting call

In perhaps one of the most ingenious uses of crime-sourcing seen to date, a bank robber in Seattle utilized Craigslist to recruit a crowd of unwitting participants to facilitate his escape. In the days leading up to the robbery, the perpetrator placed an ad on Craigslist seeking workers for a purported road-maintenance project paying $28.50 an hour. He instructed his "contractors" to show up at a street location at the exact place and time an armored car was to be delivering cash to a local Bank of America.

The robber instructed all those showing up for the promise of work to wear their own yellow vest, safety goggles, respirator mask and blue shirt — the criminal's exact outfit the day of the robbery. After overpowering the armored car driver with pepper spray, the suspect grabbed a duffel bag filled with cash, ran past a dozen or so similarly dressed innocents and made his escape 100 yards away to a local creek where he floated away in a pre-positioned inner tube. 911 calls reporting the robbery described the suspect as being a construction worker in a yellow vest. When police arrived on seen, they had numerous robbery suspects from which to choose.

Crime-sourcing meets "investigation-sourcing"

While crime-sourcing has allowed organized crime groups to commit more crimes with less risk, law enforcement officials are now leveraging the power of crowdsourcing to fight crime as well.

The NYPD has already launched a social media unit to track criminals on Facebook and Twitter. More recently, as the streets of the UK burned in the aftermath of violent protests, citizens of London banded together online to identify looters.

In one of the most impressive uses of "investigation-sourcing" to date, the Canadian public came together to identify the thousands of protesters who caused millions of dollars of damage as a result of the Vancouver Canucks losing the NHL championship in June 2011. Using a variety of image processing techniques, the firm Gigapixel was able to assemble 216 publicly submitted photographs and assemble them into one seamless high-resolution image. The phenomenal resolution of the resultant picture allowed the faces of tens of thousands of riot participants to be viewed in high resolution. The identification of more than 10,000 participants by name was completed by tagging individuals in Facebook, breaking a record for the number of tags in a given image to date. Many of those identified in the photos have now been successfully arrested and prosecuted by Canadian authorities.

The future of crime-sourcing

The technology involved in various crowdsourcing techniques is, of course, neither good nor bad. What started as a legitimate methodology to tap the wisdom of crowds for the betterment of business and science has unfortunately been adopted by the criminal underground. As demonstrated in the numerous examples listed above, organized crime groups clearly understand how to employ these techniques to commit more crime with less risk.

Undoubtedly, criminals will continue to innovate and develop new tactics to grow their profits from crime-sourcing. Whether this crime trend continues unabated depends on the ability of the police and the law-abiding members of our society to organize themselves as an effective countermeasure. In the looming clash between cops and robbers to crowdsource good versus evil, victory will belong to whichever group proves itself capable of mobilizing the larger crowd.

Thanks to Tarun Wadhwa for his helpful comments on earlier drafts of this post.

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

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The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

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The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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