How quaint computer security once seemed. As recently as two or three years ago, security was a dull backwater, a tired civil war in a small Central American country nobody cared about.
Complex, high-impact computer crime was mostly hypothesis, what might happen. There was plenty of cybercrime but it was (we can now see) relatively experimental in nature and its effects were, bar the odd attention-grabbing event, mostly a technological nuisance.
Its become a truism to say that this the arrival of organised crime has changed this, a metamorphosis that probably has its roots as far back as the mid-1990s.
If this is a simplification - cybercrime has been a concern for some people for many years - the general observation still stands.
Whats interesting but less remarked on, is the way that the sudden and entirely predictable arrival of the professional cybercriminal has started to change not only the laws of the land but the shape and nature of the authorities tasked with holding them at bay.
The cybercop is not someone most of us have met, but this is a new breed of policeman its safe to predict we will be hearing more and more of in the next decade. A few of us - or our children - may even end up being one.
Administrators in the U.S. the country with the most to lose and the nexus of the problem have not been slow to spot the coming of the digital policeman.
As long ago as 1998, the then head of the national infrastructure protection centre, Michael Vatis, told a Congressional committee, "Although we have not experienced the electronic equivalent of a Pearl Harbor or Oklahoma City, as some have foretold, the statistics and our cases demonstrate our dangerous vulnerabilities to cyber attacks."
By late 2001, with the alarms by now ringing loudly, the FBI had its own dedicated, cybercrime division , organised into four divisions of CATS or cyber action teams. Cybercrime has now climbed into third place in the organisations list of priorities, and hundreds of specialists have been hired as far as one can work out in the last four years. Assuming the skills are available at the right price, this will climb into thousands in due course.
The private sector in recent days is starting to supplement this. An FBI swoop on the alleged writers of the Zotob worm turns out to have got its leads from the cybercrime division of Microsoft. The worm affected Windows 2000, so its not surprising that the company should become involved. But its interesting that the worlds largest company now pays people to perform this function at all.
Isnt Microsoft supposed to be a software company? Like any major 21st Century software company, it now has its own police force as well.
Today, computer crime is still seen in many countries as prankish, perhaps because the public cant point to that many victims or unpleasant effects. Because so few frontline policemen in most countries have much of an idea what digital crime is about, reporting it is likely also waste of time. Traffic policing was probably like this in the days before the average citizen could drive.
Digital crime can originate anywhere on the globe, be directed at anyone, and do it 24-hours a day, every day. This isnt what the proponents of globalisation imagined when they saw in the Internet a new medium for worldwide commerce.
The virtual police station cant be far away.