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  • James Cole

Piracy, Cyber Crime and some Lessons from History

Updated: Oct 25

As a kid I dreamed of running away and becoming a Pirate... Instead I took to Cyber Crime. Well... preventing it anyway.

While Cyber Criminals are not normally seen as Pirates, the parallels are at times uncanny. Both Cyber Criminals and Pirates make their living from attacking legitimate businesses and organisations to steal what they have and/or extract ransoms. Both require tools of the trade. Both require a means of offloading and profiting from their plunder. Both require a home base. And, less obviously, neither can succeed without a society governed by the rules of law.


How Piracy helped establish the Private Limited Company and the Insurance Industry


Piracy has been around for as long as written records exist. Probably longer. The first recorded instances date back to the 14th century BC.


Many nations have suffered the consequences and disruptions to trade occasioned by Piracy. All have struggled to control it. While others have quietly profited by providing a home base to pirates and condoning their actions.


In 1588, a nation doing very nicely from condoning Piracy (England), was invaded by another nation fed up with having its shipping plundered. The invasion failed, and the Spanish Armada sunk at sea. Sadly, state sponsored solutions to Piracy seldom succeed.


A few years later in 1600, a group of men, many of whom referred to themselves as “Privateers” – a polite name for Pirates – met in London to form the first ever Private Limited Company. The British East India Company. Many fortunes were made, Bengal was brutally raped and the Mogul empire destroyed[1]. And when the company later became insolvent and deemed “too big to fail” it was bailed out by the Bank of England. Now where have I heard that story before?


In 1688, another group of well-heeled London gentlemen, most of whom had made fortunes from East India Company stock, formed Lloyds Insurance in a coffee shop. Their business, insuring shipping from Piracy or other mishaps. Was this history going full circle or just the Brits running a protection racket?


In today’s world, nautical Piracy still exists. But increasingly Lloyds’ Insurance business comes from insuring businesses against Cyber Crime.


What do Pirates and Cyber Criminals need in Order to Succeed?


Often the best way to prevent something is to look at what it needs to succeed. Then limit the supply.


Tools of the Trade

Nautical Pirates need food, water, boats and munitions to succeed.

Cyber Criminals require people to research the exploits they use, and manufacture the hacking tools and ransomware their livelihoods depend on. While hacking was once the domain of script kiddies and done for laughs and kudos, today’s cyber crime industry has evolved to a point that it has its own companies, developers, tool makers and supply chains.


A functioning Society and Economy


While fortunes in Spanish Gold and Bitcoin are wonderful things to have, neither can be eaten or have any real use without a society that will convert them into food and other assets.


Rules of Law


A lot of people wrongly think that Pirates profit in a lawless world and society. Paradoxically perhaps, nothing could be further from the truth. Pirates and Cyber Criminals alike need a home base where they can obtain, equip and repair their tools of trade, unload and sell their plunder without too many questions being asked, and leave their accumulated assets in safety while they head out on their next expedition. All of these are hard if not impossible in a completely lawless society.


A compliant Regime


1500s England provided a home base to nautical pirates, condoned their activities, benefited from their plunder and quietly thumbed their noses at Portugal and Spain. Today it’s countries like Somalia[2].


Likewise, Cyber Pirates find a happy home in Eastern European and other states happy to thumb their noses at the West and its rules.


The golden rule for both Pirates and Cyber Criminals alike – don’t plunder the assets of your own government.


[1] William Dalrymple’s “The Anarchy” charts the history of the company and makes for compelling reading. You can hear him interviewed here: https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/william-dalrymple-british-east-india/11648048 [2] You’ll find an excellent discussion on this from Sarah Percy here: https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/conversations-sarah-percy-pirates/8787592

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