Cybercrime as a Tragedy of the Commons
Two very interesting points in this essay on cybercrime. The first is that cybercrime isn’t as big a problem as conventional wisdom makes it out to be.
We have examined cybercrime from an economics standpoint and found a story at odds with the conventional wisdom. A few criminals do well, but cybercrime is a relentless, low-profit struggle for the majority. Spamming, stealing passwords or pillaging bank accounts might appear a perfect business. Cybercriminals can be thousands of miles from the scene of the crime, they can download everything they need online, and there’s little training or capital outlay required. Almost anyone can do it.
Well, not really. Structurally, the economics of cybercrimes like spam and password-stealing are the same as those of fishing. Economics long ago established that common-access resources make for bad business opportunities. No matter how large the original opportunity, new entrants continue to arrive, driving the average return ever downward. Just as unregulated fish stocks are driven to exhaustion, there is never enough “easy money” to go around.
The second is that exaggerating the effects of cybercrime is a direct result of how the estimates are generated.
For one thing, in numeric surveys, errors are almost always upward: since the amounts of estimated losses must be positive, there’s no limit on the upside, but zero is a hard limit on the downside. As a consequence, respondent errors— or outright lies—cannot be canceled out. Even worse, errors get amplified when researchers scale between the survey group and the overall population.
Suppose we asked 5,000 people to report their cybercrime losses, which we will then extrapolate over a population of 200 million. Every dollar claimed gets multiplied by 40,000. A single individual who falsely claims $25,000 in losses adds a spurious $1 billion to the estimate. And since no one can claim negative losses, the error can’t be canceled.
A cybercrime where profits are slim and competition is ruthless also offers simple explanations of facts that are otherwise puzzling. Credentials and stolen credit-card numbers are offered for sale at pennies on the dollar for the simple reason that they are hard to monetize. Cybercrime billionaires are hard to locate because there aren’t any. Few people know anyone who has lost substantial money because victims are far rarer than the exaggerated estimates would imply.