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The taxi driver peers into the rain and shrugs. There’s nothing resembling a government building in this bleak industrial district on the edge of Kiev, just overgrown tram tracks and scrapyards patrolled by dogs.
We’re here to meet Colonel Sergiy Demediuk, Ukraine’s top cybercop, to find out why this former Soviet state, known more for mining coal than data, spawns so many of the most-wanted digital crooks. If anyone can catch them, the colonel can, but he too is proving difficult to find. Finally, a guard emerges from a dingy cluster of peach-colored structures to wave us in.
“The new breed of cybercriminals is out of control,” Demediuk, 38, says in a second-floor office adorned with a portrait of the 19th century poet Taras Shevchenko. Tieless and sporting a smartwatch, the colonel says hackers no longer respect the old code of targeting any country but your own.
In the Internet age, bad guys can tap into your home or business from anywhere, giving them a reach national police forces can’t match alone. As a result, cops in hacking hot spots like Ukraine have become key players in the global effort to dent the estimated $400 billion trade in online crime.
Ukrainians and Russians have been at the vanguard of hacking for almost as long as the Internet has been around. But now, with the government in Kiev hamstrung by a recession and a pro-Russian insurgency in the country’s industrial heartland, the number of computer attacks is skyrocketing.
Demediuk’s Department for Combating Cybercrime received 5,000 complaints in the first nine months, two-thirds more than in all of 2014 and the group only handles a fifth of all reported incidents. The government, on life support from the International Monetary Fund and backed by the U.S. and the European Union, recognizes the problem and has found enough funds to almost double the unit’s staff to 400.
From credit-card fraud to laundering, malware to phishing-for-hire, Ukraine’s hacking culture was formed in the chaos that followed the collapse of communism in 1991, when a “very large criminal element” emerged, according to Thomas Brown, a cybersecurity expert at Washington-based FTI Consulting and a former federal prosecutor in New York.