Hackers help destroy the Amazon rainforest

Posted by jamie - 12 December 2008 at 11:11am - Comments

High-tech smuggling operations may not be what you'd normally associate with the ongoing clearance of the Amazon rainforest, but logging companies intent on plundering it for timber have been using hackers to break into the Brazilian government's sophisticated tracking system and fiddle the records.

To monitor the amount of timber leaving the Amazon state of Pará, the Brazilian environment ministry did away with paper dockets and two years ago introduced an online system. Companies logging the rainforest for timber or charcoal production are only allowed to fell a certain amount of timber every year and this is controlled by the use of transport permits issued by the state government's computer system.

To be exported from Pará, each shipment of timber requires one of these transport permits, and the volume of timber in each shipment is deducted from the total amount allowed under the company's forest management plan. Once that amount is reduced to zero, no more transport permits are issued so there's no profit in felling more trees.

At least, that's what's supposed to happen but today the public prosecutor will release details of how hackers employed by 107 logging and charcoal companies have compromised the system, falsifying the online records to increase the timber transport allocations for certain areas of the forest. In the past, Brazil has been called the world's hacking capital and there is a history of criminal gangs targeting from banks and engaging in large-scale online fraud.

The result is that nearly 1.7 million cubic metres of illegal timber have been smuggled out of the Amazon, enough to fill 780 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The sums of money involved are also huge, and the public prosecutor is suing the companies responsible for 2 billion reais (£558m or US$833m). According to federal prosecutor Daniel Avelino, many of these companies have a track record of illegal practices: "Almost half of the companies involved in this scam have other law suits pending for environmental crimes or the use of slave labour, amongst other things."

Staff at the federal prosecutor's office surrounded by legal documents relating to the hacking fraud

Staff at the federal prosecutor's office surrounded by legal documents relating to the hacking fraud © Helena Palmquist/PRPA

Police started investigating the suspect hackers in April 2007, swooping in a couple of months later to arrest 30 ring leaders. One is still in jail - the intermediary who brought the hackers and the loggers together - and in total, 202 people are facing prosecution.

André Muggiati, our campaigner in our Amazon office in Manaus, told me they flagged up potential security holes in the past. "We've pointed out before that this method of controlling the transport of timber was subject to fraud. And this is only the tip of the iceberg, because the same computer system is also used in two other Brazilian states."

"By hacking into the permit system, these companies have made their timber shipments appear legal and compliant with the forest management plans. But in reality, they're trading illegal timber which is making the problem of deforestation worse, and a lack of control and policing in the areas they're logging means they think they can get away with it."

If this scandal weren't bad enough, it comes as the Brazilian national congress prepares to vote on a change to the country's forest code which could massively increase the amount of legal logging that will be allowed.

At the moment, land owners in the Amazon are able to clear trees from 20 per cent of their property but if the proposed changes are adopted, it will raise that to 50 per cent. Given the contentious nature of land ownership in the region, no one knows exactly the damage this will cause but as deforestation rates are once again on the increase, it's certain to push them up even further.

This scandal of loggers and hackers just demonstrates that the Brazilian government is failing to protect the Amazon forest from logging companies determined to break the law. If the rainforest is to have any long-term future, the only answer is to adopt a zero deforestation plan, like the one we and other campaign groups think is needed, setting ambitious targets to bring deforestation under control. Otherwise illegal logging and corporate fraud such this will continue to be a massive problem.

I have always thought of hackers as heroic underground people who fight agains big corporations.

I've always thought a hacker was a 'robin hoods' of sorts.

It's very sad they are also responsible for destroying the world.

:(

I liked this paper, and leaves me thinking that information security is no longer a banks problem, everyone with any kind of software online should have good knowledge on how to avoid data manipulation from the outside, since there will always be people willing to pay other people to help them make more money fast and braking the law.

Are you making your online software secure?

We are in 2009 and the problem remains the same, are we destined to run out of forest?

1.7 million cubic metres of illegal timber!!!! You have to be having a laugh, that is totally unexceptable. What are the cowboys who are running the Brazilian government doing. I mean get some cyber security for goodness sake, it is not that hard to protect your online records!!

I seriously think the Brazilian government needs to re-think the way they are running the operations to protect the Amazon, because they continue to struggle with this.

Sandy

A joke or not, such things do happen. There is no morality in the world anymore. If a country needs more shipments of wood, they hack the system and get it.

Lilia Gephardt

I didn't know that, and it's very sad they are guilty for such a big crime. I can understand stealing money from bad people or from people that can then get back money from insurance... but the forest, who can give it back to us?

This is not just a scandal, it should alert and light the little red lamp in everybody's head. I am sure there is something that we can do in order to save the forest.

the intermediary who brought the hackers and the loggers together - and in total, 202 people are facing prosecution.

Indeed, the problem is the police are actually aware of it and choose to ignore it half the time because they are given bribes and other incentives. In reality, people just don’t care enough about the planet and nature, we have to change this somehow, together.

Its a very sad thing what they are doing to the amazon rain forest. Someone should step in and stop this from happening.

Jayewans

considering the present alarming environmental conditions of the world, this is really a very serious offense. The culprits should be nabbed and punished. Secondly the system should be upgraded or improved to avoid such instances in the future. This is our last chance to save our planet.

I have always thought of hackers as heroic underground people who fight agains big corporations. I've always thought a hacker was a 'robin hoods' of sorts. It's very sad they are also responsible for destroying the world. :(

I liked this paper, and leaves me thinking that information security is no longer a banks problem, everyone with any kind of software online should have good knowledge on how to avoid data manipulation from the outside, since there will always be people willing to pay other people to help them make more money fast and braking the law. Are you making your online software secure?

We are in 2009 and the problem remains the same, are we destined to run out of forest?

1.7 million cubic metres of illegal timber!!!! You have to be having a laugh, that is totally unexceptable. What are the cowboys who are running the Brazilian government doing. I mean get some cyber security for goodness sake, it is not that hard to protect your online records!! I seriously think the Brazilian government needs to re-think the way they are running the operations to protect the Amazon, because they continue to struggle with this. Sandy

A joke or not, such things do happen. There is no morality in the world anymore. If a country needs more shipments of wood, they hack the system and get it. Lilia Gephardt

I didn't know that, and it's very sad they are guilty for such a big crime. I can understand stealing money from bad people or from people that can then get back money from insurance... but the forest, who can give it back to us?

This is not just a scandal, it should alert and light the little red lamp in everybody's head. I am sure there is something that we can do in order to save the forest.

the intermediary who brought the hackers and the loggers together - and in total, 202 people are facing prosecution.

Indeed, the problem is the police are actually aware of it and choose to ignore it half the time because they are given bribes and other incentives. In reality, people just don’t care enough about the planet and nature, we have to change this somehow, together.

Its a very sad thing what they are doing to the amazon rain forest. Someone should step in and stop this from happening. Jayewans

considering the present alarming environmental conditions of the world, this is really a very serious offense. The culprits should be nabbed and punished. Secondly the system should be upgraded or improved to avoid such instances in the future. This is our last chance to save our planet.

Follow Greenpeace UK