What is Cyber Crime and How Can Cyber Criminology Help Reduce Victimisation?

Written by Professor Hamid Jahankhani

In recent years there has been much discussion concerning the nature of computer crime and how to tackle it. There is confusion over the scope of computer crime, debate over its extent and severity, and concern over where our power to defeat it lies. There are many available policy documents and studies that address how the nature of this war against cybercrime is changing with the advent of widespread computer technology.

Questions about what we understand by the term “Cyber crime” have been raised with arguments that the term itself does not actually do much more than signify the occurrence of a harmful behaviour that is somehow related to a computer, and it has no specific reference in law. Fifteen years later, this argument is still true for many countries that still have very vague concepts in their constitutions regarding cyber crime.

This lack of definitional clarity is problematic as it impacts upon every facet of prevention and remediation, while, number of people and businesses affected by various types of perceived cyber crime is “growing with no signs of declining”.

All countries face the same dilemma of how to fight cyber crime and how to effectively promote security to their citizens and organisations.

Cyber crime, unlike traditional crime which is committed in one geographical location, is committed online and it is often not clearly linked to any geographical location. Therefore, a coordinated global response to the problem of cyber crime is required. This is largely due to the fact that there are a number of problems, which pose a hindrance to the effective reduction in cyber crime. Some of the main problems arise as a result of the shortcomings of the technology, legislation and cyber criminology.

Many criminological perspectives define crime on the social, cultural and material characteristics, and view crimes as taking place at a specific geographic location. This definition of crime has allowed for the characterisation of crime, and the subsequent tailoring of crime prevention, mapping and measurement methods to the specific target audience. However, this characterisation cannot be carried over to cyber crime, because the environment in which cyber crime is committed cannot be pinpointed to a geographical location, or distinctive social or cultural groups, because the Internet is ‘anti-spatial’. As a result, identifying location with distinctive crime inducing characteristics is almost impossible in cyber crimes. This, in turn, serves to render the criminological perspectives based on spatial distinctions useless.

Therefore, criminology allows for the understanding of the motivations of the criminals by analysing the social characteristics of the criminals and their spatial location and helps in understanding the reasons behind the preponderance of crimes committed by people with particular characteristics.

However, the relationship between social exclusion and crime that had been widely accepted in traditional crime could not be true in the case of cybercrimes, and that cyber criminals are fairly ‘atypical’ in terms of traditional criminological expectations. Hence, the current perspectives of criminology that link marginality and social exclusion to crime have no use in explaining the motivations behind cybercrimes. Without an understanding of motives, it is difficult for law enforcement agencies and government to take effective measures to tackle cybercrime.

The UK law enforcement agencies sort any crime involving computers into one of three categories. Firstly, a computer can be the target of criminal activity, for example, when a website is the victim of a denial-of- service attack, or a laptop is stolen. Secondly, computers can act as an intermediary medium, where the computer is used as a vehicle for crime against a business or individual, for example, hacking into a website to steal documents or funds. Thirdly, it can be an intermediary facilitator, for example, when criminals use the computer for activities that are related to the crime, but are not in themselves criminal, such as planning and research. As a medium, the computer can perform as the criminal’s modus operandi, and as an intermediary, computer systems act as a buffer between offenders and their victims, affecting how an offence is undertaken or executed. As a facilitator, a computer can enable communications between offenders in a globally accessible space which is near relatively instantaneous. When the computer performs as an offending medium, the offender-victim/conspirator contact must be considered, whereas when it acts as an offending facilitator, it aids the contacts between offenders. The difference between these categories is often a matter of emphasis, and it is possible for a computer to play both roles in a single given offence, as an Internet e-commerce based fraud may also involve significant online communication between offenders.

Any new technology stimulates a need for a community to determine what the norms of behaviour should be for the technology, and it is important to consider how these norms should be reflected, if at all, in our laws.

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