Although the term digital crime has no universally accepted meaning, it is most often used as a collective term to describe forms of criminal activity that exploit the advent of digital forms of representation, storage, and transmission. In this sense, digital crime will normally include crimes such as the unauthorized access of computer and network systems for financial gain, the sharing of online child sexual abuse imagery, and sophisticated online fraud attempts such as spear phishing. However, the term digital crime is also sometimes employed with reference to specific methods used within criminal investigation that involve the forensic recovery and analysis of digital data of potential intelligence or evidential value (such as data that might be recovered from tablet devices, smartphones, and satellite navigation systems). Given its variety of possible meanings, digital crime is thus a potentially confusing conflation of categories of undoubtedly novel forms of crime with the practice of new digitally based methods of investigating potentially any type of crime (conventional as well as cyber). For example, a homicide inquiry might well involve the digital forensic investigation of a suspect’s mobile phone in an attempt to recover deleted short message service (SMS) messages.
Similarly, it is also the case that the policing of digital crime might be considered to embrace not only the preventing, detecting, and investigating of the new forms of crime but also the recovery and analyzing of digital intelligence and evidence. Policing activities in this general sense are carried out not only by law enforcement agencies but also by private companies, industry bodies, and those business sectors most often affected (such as the finance sector).
“Digital security” also has a wide and evolving meaning, often applied in practice to diverse subject areas ranging from advice on safe practice online offered to the public to advanced forms of data encryption. There is an inherent ambiguity between the security of digital devices and forms of communication and the use of digital means to enhance security (for example, authentication techniques used to protect the confidentiality of information).
Nature of Digital Crime
The claim for the newness of digital crime is usually based on the unintended consequences of two convergent and complementary developments, namely, the phenomenon of digitality itself, together with the advent of electronic communication networks. It is argued that the very nature of digital forms of representation and transmission, coupled with the growth of networks, have given rise to both new ways of conducting crime and even to new forms of criminality.
Digital representation of information (“digital information”) uses a finite number of states (for example, two—often referred to as binary), each state being easily distinguishable from another. This means that the digital representation of information is inherently robust (for example, reproducible without loss of information), is malleable, and can be transmitted at high speed.
The development of communication networks is most noticeable in the case of the Internet. These networks are often highly distributed and horizontal in nature, rather than centralized and vertical. This means, for example, that there is little (indeed, can be little) in the way of central control over the sharing of data and information in cyberspace, and few of the limitations of time and space found in the real world. Cyberspace also provides greater scope for anonymity—not only in the deliberate attempts by offenders to hide or fake their identity but also in a more general sense of an “unreality,” which might lead to illegal acts (such as the downloading of copyright-protected material) being committed by otherwise law-abiding people. Indeed, some authorities go so far as to claim that one of the major reasons people are attracted to digital crime is the anonymity afforded by computer mediated environments.
The production and sharing of child sexual abuse imagery (CSAI, or child pornography) is an example of a crime that has been affected by the combination of both digitality and the growth of networks. Whereas in the past criminal users and producers of CSAI were heavily constrained by a number of technical and procedural limitations, these have been largely removed. For example, in principle digital video is infinitely reproducible without loss of media quality (unlike precursor VHS video) and is already in a format that can be readily distributed and accessed through electronic communication networks. Although CSAI obviously predates the Internet and digital forms of representation as a crime, it has been transformed as a consequence of both of these developments.
Further, the hyper connectivity afforded by the huge growth in digital devices and in social networking is profoundly affecting how other forms of crime are enacted. For example, the perpetrators of a terrorist attack in London in 2013 conducted live interviews at the murder scene, apparently fully aware that the images and sound would be conveyed instantly around the world via the social media applications on the smartphones of passersby, effectively bypassing the editorial control of conventional media news organizations.
Forms of Digital Crime
David Wall’s approach to the classification of digital crime (although Wall does not use this term in his descriptions) has been particularly influential and pervasive. Wall originally drew a broad distinction between computer-assisted and computer-oriented crimes and proposed the existence of four groups of offensive behaviors: cybertrespass, cyberdeceptions/thefts, cyberpornography/ obscenity, and cyberviolence. Further forms of illegal or socially offensive cyberbehaviors have since emerged.
Cyberviolence is the employment of digital means in an attempt to inflict (usually psychological) harm on others. Examples include homophobic and racist abuse via social network sites. Cybertheft is the use of cyberspace to commit theft of data, for example, phishing for payment card details or steal intellectual property rights (IPR) of digital property. Cybertrespass is the unauthorized accessing of computer systems, of which hacking and cracking are prime examples. Cyberdamage (or cybervandalism) consists of deliberate damage against digital structures, such as Web site defacement, sometimes as part of a political demonstration (so-called hactivism), or damage to an operating system caused by a virus. Cyberobscenity is the use of the Internet to view, distribute, and trade obscene and offensive material, for example, electronic trading in CSAI and the phenomenon of sexting. Cyberharassment is the use of online environments to facilitate harassment activities (for example, stalking and bullying activities using e-mail and social networks). Cyberwarfare (or cyberterrorism) is the use by some individuals, groups, and perhaps nation-states of online environments to promote or enact acts of warfare or terrorism, such as the widespread Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack against the Internet in Estonia in 2007.
History of Digital Crime
It is clear that individuals have always exploited the new opportunities afforded by digital forms of representation, technologies, and communication structures. For example, a historically early (1970s) digital fraud exploited a particular aspect of the automated accounting systems employed on mainframe computers in banks, where the interest on a customer’s account would be automatically calculated to several decimal places, and this would inevitably result in fractions of a cent. The figure would be rounded down before payment to the customer, and the small differences secretly transferred by an unscrupulous bank employee to an account that he or she controlled. The method was subsequently termed “salami fraud.”
Since the 1970s, there have been three discernible subsequent generations of digital crime (which continue to coexist): The first generation was largely that of traditional crimes in which computers were simply a tool to commit the crime. A second generation (post-1970s) of new technology and networks meant that traditional crimes gradually became more distributed and globalized. The third generation that David Wall and others have identified include the sui generis (literally “of its own kind,” or unique) forms of digital crime: that is, criminality that could not have existed without digitalization and networks. Examples of these crimes include spamming (sending out multiple e-mails, usually through a set of infected computers called a Botnet) and computer systems hacking for purposes of industrial espionage.
Extent and Cost of Digital Crime
In most countries reliable data concerning the extent and financial cost of digital crime, where it exists, comes from reported and police-recorded crime statistics. In some jurisdictions, additional data may be available from victim surveys (such as the United Kingdom’s [UK] British Crime Survey). Occasionally, the cost of digital crime will also be estimated through using data on criminal prosecutions as a proxy; however, this is inherently problematic as many digital crimes will be prosecuted instead using legislation originally intended for nondigital purposes.
Estimates of the financial cost of cybercrime (to economies, organizations, and individuals) vary considerably. The reasons for this include the difficulty in quantifying certain forms of digital crime (for example, DDoS attacks); the fact that many commercial companies may prefer to keep information confidential; and that many victims do not report such crimes, either because their losses are small or because of embarrassment, for example, succumbing to a drive-by (malicious download) attack after visiting an adult-content Web site.
A number of security companies regularly publish estimates of the cost of cybercrime in particular, apparently running into hundreds of billions of dollars globally. At least some of these surveys are met with skepticism, given the vested interests at play. However, irrespective of either the definition of digital crime adopted or the means of measurement employed, all reliable surveys point to a significant increase in the volume and economic cost of digital crime over the last decade or so. There are obvious reasons why digital crime might be increasing: it is often a relatively low risk crime for offenders to commit (for example, it provides greater anonymity); it is potentially very lucrative (why attempt to steal $1 million from a bank when instead you can steal $1 from each of 1 million Internet users?); and by its very nature digital crime often crosses international borders and hence provides challenges for law enforcement in terms of detection, investigation, and prosecution.
As with digital crime, there is no universally accepted definition of digital security. However, digital security as a concept is most often employed in regard to the prevention of digital crime. In this sense, digital security is an issue at the level of individuals, of organizations, and of nation-states.
In terms of the individual, the argument runs that a certain level of personal responsibility for preventing digital crime should be expected of online “netizens,” for example, in terms of using antivirus software programs (and regularly updating them), choosing secure passwords, and being aware of common methods employed to conduct online fraud. Law enforcement agencies and others in many countries will offer advice and contribute to campaigns in an attempt to improve the digital security of their citizens. Transnational commercial organizations such as Apple, Microsoft (particularly its digital crimes unit), and social network providers such as Facebook are also increasingly expected to play a role in enhancing the digital security of their customers and users through implementing preventative measures.
At the level of organizations, digital security manifests itself in various control measures and security protocols implemented in an attempt to thwart digital crimes such as illegal network intrusion, the stealing of customer log on details, and so on.
Many governments have developed cybersecurity strategies in response to the perceived risks presented by digital crime, particularly cybercrime. Both the U.K. (the Cyber Crime Strategy) and U.S. governments (the National Cybersecurity Initiative) have developed such strategies but with significantly different foci, emphases, and priorities. In some cases these strategies aim to extend protection to not only citizens and commerce but also the state itself in terms of countering the threats posed by cyberterrorism and cyberwarfare.
A number of technological means (electronic and physical) may be used to enhance digital security. These include the use of cryptographic methods, not only in an attempt to secure the confidentially of stored electronic information but also for network data traffic. Biometrics, smart card technologies, and radio frequency identification (RFID) are also employed for this reason.
There has been comparatively little development of specific digital crime prevention theory, and the number of applications of existing crime prevention theory to digital crime is also relatively small. Where theory does exist it tends to flow from two main presumptions of traditional crime prevention theory, which are that crime is prevented by decreasing the vulnerability of the potential victim or system (defending the target) and/or reducing the attractiveness of the criminal act to an offender (dissuading the attacker). Hence, there are regular calls to “harden” information system targets from possible attack by would-be hackers, and governments are urged to increase the penalties for online intellectual property crimes to dissuade potential offenders.
- Anderson, Ross, Chris Barton, Rainer Böhme, Richard Clayton, Michel J. G. van Eeten, Michael Levi, Tyler Moore, and Stefan Savage. Measuring the Cost of Cybercrime (2012).
- http://weis2012.econinfosec.org/papers/Anderson_WEIS2012.pdf (Accessed October 2013).
- Brenner, Susan. Cyber Crime: Criminal Threats From Cyberspace. New York: Pentagon Press,
- Bryant, Robin and Sarah Bryant, eds. Policing Digital Crime: London: Ashgate, 2014.
- Clough, Jonathon. Principles of Cybercrime. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
- Holt, Thomas J. “Exploring the Intersections of Technology, Crime and Terror.” Terrorism and Political Violence, v.24/2 (2012).
- Jewkes, Y. and M. Yar, eds. Handbook of Internet Crime. Collumpton, UK: Willan Publishing, 2009.
- Lewis, Sheena and Dan Lewis. “Digitalizing Crime Prevention Theories: How Technology Affects Victim and Offender Behavior.” International Journal of Criminology and Sociological Theory, v.4/2 (2011).
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