Book Review: ‘Cybercrime in the Greater China Region’ by Lennon Yao-chung Chang

July 1, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

cybercrime

Hey look, this is not the type of book I would usually read out of interest, but since I reviewed it for a trade publication a couple of months ago and found it pretty interesting I thought I would share my thoughts.

The full title of this 2012 book is Cybercrime in the Greater China Region: Regulatory Responses and Crime Prevention Across the Taiwan Strait. It is the PhD thesis of Taiwan-born Lennon Yao-chung Chang at Australia National University. It might sound kinda boring — and there are stretches that remind you very clearly that this is an academic paper — but there are plenty of interesting ideas here because of the fascinating political dynamics at work between Taiwan and China, both of which rank near or at the top in terms of malicious internet activity (in terms of perpetrators and victims).

As this is a relatively untapped area of research, the paper does suffer from limited access to data, especially in China, where every question from a Taiwanese academic would naturally be met with scepticism. The majority of information is therefore accumulated through empirical data and interviews with internet professionals in the private and public sectors and law enforcement on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Don’t worry if you don’t know much about Taiwan-China relations, cybercrime laws or internet terminology, because those are the things Chang addresses first in the book. He combs through the political situation between the two countries and the official lines of “reunification” and “independence”, and how this would pose difficulties in co-operative cybercrime investigation, prosecution, enforcement, and the concept of dual criminality. He also discusses at some length the legislative provisions from both countries — some of which, particularly in Taiwan, were not developed until only a few years ago (to my surprise, given Taiwan’s reputation as a technology leader).

Chang also explains what are malware, torjans, viruses and bots, which can turn computers effectively into “zombies” that can then be controlled to attack others. The problem with these cybercrime tools is that they adhere well to criminal theory — low cost, low risk and high reward, lots of opportunities and targets, and the lack of a proper reporting system.

The leading legal document tackling international cybercrime is the Council of Europe’s Convention on Cybercrime, but it happens to be relatively useless to both China and Taiwan. The problem with China is that they are just not that interested in the convention because its laws are too different, and more importantly, the Chinese government wants (or arguable needs) to maintain more control over its internet channels at the expense of the privacy and free speech of its citizens. On the other hand, Taiwan would love to be involved, but it’s not recognised as a country by signatories and is not part of the United Nations.

While the China and Taiwan have in place a number of cooperation agreements between non-governmental organizations that could potentially cover cybercrime, laws still cannot be enforced without government assistance. There are, of course, no official bilateral agreements between the two countries on cybercrime.

The discussions about these diplomatic difficulties and contradictions are where the book gets most interesting. China is really only willing to co-operate with Taiwan if it is also a victim of the same crime, and even then, there are the complexities of the Chinese concepts of guan-xi (personal relationships) and ren-qing (favours) which could prove to be huge stumbling blocks in any joint effort. Even the latest debacle involving Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA contractor who spilled the beans on US internet and phone surveillance, shows just how hard it is to get anything done when Beijing is involved.

The parts of the book I enjoyed the most were the painfully hilarious interviews with Taiwanese experts and officials on cybercrime issues. The problem with Taiwan’s cybercrime enforcement can be summed up as follows: the people who understand the law don’t understand the technology; the people who understand the technology don’t understand the law; the people who want to change the law don’t have the power; and the people who have the power don’t want to change the law. On top of that, all cybercrime investigation teams in the country are pitifully small and often can’t be bothered chasing cybercriminals because of the low success rate.

My favourite quote from the whole book comes from a Taiwanese cybercrime professional. The quote, sadly, would be less funny if it weren’t so true:

Even if the laws are adequate, our…judges and prosecutors are all IDIOTS in the area of technology. This is what I feel ashamed of…We have advanced laws, retarded law enforcement officers, and an insufficient law enforcement system…Almost all the law enforcement officers, around 99% of them are idiots, what can we do? That is nothing to do with laws. Brains need to be changed. What I am always emphasizing is that courts need to be professional. If judges are not professional, then how can we persuade others that our courts are professional?

So how does Chang suggest we can change the situation? Well, the last portion of the book is dedicated to his recommendation, which is to develop a “wiki” approach to cybercrime that embraces an information-sharing platform with a gatekeeper and very specific protocols. The voluntary Aviation Safety Reporting System is noted as a possible blueprint.

Chang also calls on the media, especially in Taiwan, to not sensationalise cybercrime and to change the “image” of the victims, who often do not report out of fears of losing face and being audited. He compared the victims of cybercrime to the victims of sexual assault and infectious diseases in the sense that there is a stigma attached to them — this has to be changed in order for cybercrime enforcement to take the next step, he says.

Giving this kind of book a rating is difficult because as an academic paper it lacks of proper narrative thread and has many dry patches that could put anyone not using the book for research (and probably them too) to sleep. The fact that English is not Chang’s first language often sticks out like a sore thumb, notwithstanding the best efforts of his editors. The lack of data and cooperation from China was also frustrating at times. But I suppose for an academic paper it does have some very interesting sections and even a few that I found quite funny. Given the dearth of information available about this topic for now, the book is also possibly the most authoritative piece of research on it, so extra brownie points for that.

But let’s not pretend anyone would read it unless they had to.

3/5

Movie Review: Cold War (2012)

December 4, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

I am cynical when it comes to Hong Kong and Taiwanese films because they rarely live up to expectations, but word of mouth got me interested in Cold War, a big-budget effort that has been promoted as “the best Hong Kong movie in the last 10 years.”

I was warned before watching Cold War that while I cannot compare it to first class Hollywood productions, it’s pretty good “for a Hong Kong movie.” That’s pretty much my assessment of the movie too.

The title of the movie refers to the code name given to a police operation after a busy shopping district explodes and a van carrying five officers and weapons suddenly goes missing. One of the officers happens to be the son of the deputy commissioner of police (Tony Leung), currently filling in as acting commissioner.

The incident escalates tensions in an already tense Hong Kong police department, which has been eager to promote the region as the “safest city in Asia.” There are internal power plays between Leung’s character, who is in charge of the “operations” side of things, and the character played by Aaron Kwok, the deputy commissioner on the “management” side of the department. Both men apparently want to solve the case, but at the same time they are jostling for the head job as the commissioner is set to retire.

There’s more to the story than that, which makes the film sound more complicated than it really is. I have a feeling it’s intentional. The truth is, Cold War has a rather standard plot that takes a few pages out of another crafty and highly successful Hong Kong film franchise, Infernal Affairs (remade into the Oscar-winning The Departed).

The strengths of the film lie in the interesting power play between the two leads and the twists and turns in the evolving plot, although I can’t say they weren’t predictable. The action sequences are well-done and realistic, although some of the special effects could have been a lot more polished.

Directors/co-writers Sunny Luk and Longman Leung have a certain visual style that borrows from Hollywood but retains a Hong Kong flavor, which is nice, but they do have a tendency to over-sensationalize things. We are regularly made to feel or expect that a certain scene, incident or character is supposed to have a particular significance, only to find out later that it meant nothing, or that the character was only minor and would never be seen again for the rest of the movie.

One of the introductory scenes exemplifies this perfectly. We see a half-naked girl in her underwear walking to a fridge to get a drink (with a particular focus on her swinging backside) when armed police bust in and forces what looks like a cup of faeces into her sleeping boyfriend’s mouth. It’s a provocative scene that raises a lot of questions, but it turns out that the guy was actually just a police IT expert who forgot to answer his phone (making what just happened seem extremely over the top). We don’t get to see the girl again, and the guy disappears after a couple of scenes later, making me wonder what the point of the whole thing was other than to make a big deal out of nothing.

This happens a lot, albeit mostly at the beginning. A lot of characters are given solid introductions (I presume because they are all considered “stars” in the industry), but apart from the two leads, we don’t get any development or insight into any of them. They come and go, in what are essentially cameo roles, but it feel as though they had their roles cut substantially in the editing room. I’d like to think the directors were trying to throw audiences off intentionally but I think that would be giving them too much credit.

The performances of Kwok and Leung are very strong, and carry the film a long way. The most important supporting character, an anti-corruption officer played by Cantopop singer Aarif Rahman, is passable, though his voice is really irritating, while the lead female role given to Charlie Yeung was botched because Yeung can’t act (and you don’t have to understand Cantonese to see that).

So I highly doubt Cold War is the best Hong Kong movie of the last decade as it boldly proclaims, but despite the flaws and rough edges it does have some commendable qualities, with occasional moments of tension, excitement and intrigue. The ending suggests that there will be at least one sequel to come, and while I might eventually watch it I think it will most probably be on DVD.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Animal Kingdom (2010)

May 31, 2010 in Movie Reviews

Animal Kingdom opens around Australia on 3 June 2010

People like me are what’s wrong with the Australian film industry.  My initial reaction to Aussie films is always one of scepticism and prejudice.  If it’s Australian, then chances are, it’s crap.  I’m sure I am not alone in holding this kind of biased sentiment against locally produced films.  Is it because of the poor track record?  Is it because they try too hard to make something edgy?  Or is it because we’re so used to the big bucks spent on Hollywood movies that we look down upon the locals who make their films on, relatively speaking, shoestring budgets?

I don’t know what it is, but what I do know is that Animal Kingdom, the Australian film written and directed by David Michod, is the real deal.  The film may have won the World Cinema dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, but it wasn’t until I watched it at a screening last week that it stripped away my prejudice against it and most Australian films in general.

Animal Kingdom is an explosive crime drama set in Melbourne suburbia.  The story is told through the eyes of 17-year-old Josh ‘J’ Cody (James Frecheville), who is thrust into the world of crime when he is forced to go live with his grandmother ‘Smurf’ (Jacki Weaver) and his three uncles — Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford).  They are a family of relatively small-time armed robbers and drug-traffickers, but their time is coming to an end thanks to a gang of renegade detectives who are taking the law into their own hands.  As J finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into their world, Animal Kingdom becomes a frightening tale of survival, as J is torn between his girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), self-preservation and loyalties to his family.

If there is one word I could use to describe Animal Kingdom, it would be “riveting”.  Even though it is classified as a “crime drama”, the majority of the tension (and man, there is edge-of-your-seat tension throughout the entire film) stems from the relationships and power struggles between members of the Cody family.

Debut director Michod has created an incredibly intense world that is terrifying, claustrophobic and deeply personal.  When you are a 17-year-old and this is the only life you’ve ever known, where do you go?  Who do you turn to for help?

Animal Kingdom is a film that twists and turns, and although there is a certain feeling of inevitability, you never quite know exactly what is going to happen next.  What struck me as particularly brilliant was how well each of the characters were drawn out.  With the exception of perhaps Pope’s best friend Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton) and senior cop Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce), every key character in this film is multi-dimensional and never turn out to be as they first appear.  They each have such strong personalities and traits that their interactions are always bound to produce fireworks and/or make you feel unsettled.

I used to have this idea that all the ‘good’ Australian actors end up overseas, but the performances in Animal Kingdom blew me away.  First-timer James Frecheville gives a wonderfully controlled performance as the protagonist J — a subdued man-child who prefers to be unseen but is forced to come out of his shell as matters spiral out of control.  While Stapleton and Ford both give solid performances, the standouts have to be Ben Mendelsohn’s Pope and Jacki Weaver’s Smurf, the two menacing and psychotic heads of the family.

Animal Kingdom should not be mistaken for an action-thriller.  I wouldn’t describe the pace as slow, but at 112 minutes it does feel like a long movie, especially towards the end when it took a while to come to the final resolution.

All I can say is go see it, not because we should support the Australian film industry but because it is genuinely a terrific film.  I do hope it does well at the box office, especially amongst locals.  It is by far the best Australian film I’ve seen since the 2001 Lantana.

4.5 stars out of 5!

DVD Review: Eastern Promises (2007)

May 24, 2010 in Movie Reviews

I had been wanting to watch Eastern Promises since it was first released in 2007 but never got around to it until now.  Directed by David Cronenberg (The Fly, A History of Violence) and starring Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl, Eastern Promises is a brutal, uncompromising story about a British mid-wife (Watts) who becomes involved with the Russian mafia after coming across the diary of a young girl.

It’s an incredibly dark film that has won acclaim for its realistic portrayal of the Russian mafia in the UK, right down to the tattoos their bodies are covered with.  The film was nominated for three Golden Globes (including Best Picture — Drama), and Viggo was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar (but lost it to Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood).

Eastern Promises is not an easy film to watch.  It’s hard to call it “enjoyable” because of how deeply depressing and violent it is, not to mention the mumbling (though apparently incredibly accurate) Russian accents.  But at the same time, I couldn’t help but be engrossed in the film because it kept taking me deeper and deeper into this frightening world, and there were plenty of unexpected twists and turns that kept me on my toes, uncertain as to what might happen next.  Thanks to Cronenberg, there is also this creepy, unsettling tone underlying the entire film.

Of course, there is the one scene that everyone talks about which I won’t spoil, but it’s an absolutely remarkable piece of visceral cinematic brilliance.

And you can’t appraise this film without talking about Viggo Mortensen’s performance.  It’s hard to believe watching this man on screen that he was once Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings, or the loving father from The Road.  He’s an insanely good actor and in any other year he probably would have won the Oscar for his portrayal of Nikolai, the family’s “driver”.

4 out of 5 stars!

 
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