Computer Crimes

1013 words | 4 page(s)

A remarkable aspect of the Information Age is how, within only a few decades, the same technology changing how people work, interact, and manage all their financial affairs has enabled criminality on an equally massive and global scale. The Internet has become a staple of modern life, and the increasing universal dependence upon it since the early 1990s, in terms of individuals and organizations of all kinds, has generated proportionate vulnerabilities. Adding to the issue of computer crime is the reality of an “arms race” in play; just as law enforcement uncovers a means to protect computer data, hackers develop more sophisticated technology allowing more criminality. The following then presents an overview of computer crime, emphasizing that many of the issues of detection, prevention, and prosecution first apparent in the 1980s remain in place today.

While variations of computer crime have existed since the 1980s, the dominant concern was, and is, information theft. It is ordinary to perceive the primary function of the technology today as enhancing communication, but information storage is the key to this and virtually every usage of computers. In tracing the history of computer impact and criminality, then, what emerges is an early awareness in governments, later known to the public, that criminals were accessing private data with relative ease. This increasingly occurred in both individual and organizational matters; hackers targeted private bank accounts and corporate data alike. The field of digital forensics arose in the mid-1980s as a necessary response, and on international levels. The U.S. partnered with other nations to create specialized agencies to investigate computer crime and develop protections against data theft. It quickly became apparent, however, that greater effort was needed, and that all law enforcement required some foundation of learning in this arena (Casey 10-11). The “arms race” was on from the start, as investigators confronted rapid adjustments by criminals to their efforts, and those efforts as inadequate. For example, the 1980s profile of the computer criminal – typically male, between adolescence and middle-age, and highly skilled in the technology or lacking skill – was so generalized, it was of little use (Shipley, Bowker 21). Moreover, the extent of international criminality was greatly underestimated, just as agencies were largely lacking in the necessary technical expertise.

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The rapid rise of the Internet then led to more extreme response, and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) was passed in 1986. The extraordinary reality here, however, is that the government’s correct recognition of the enormity of computer crime coincided with its inability to comprehend the processes of the crime. In plain terms, legislators were ignorant of the mechanics of computer usage, just as the CFAA preceded the inestimable usage of the Internet that would explode less than ten years later (Peterson). That usage would trigger further crimes, as in predators using online forums to attract victims. The U.S. Congress developed a range of policies and Acts in the 1990s and later to address this crime, from the 1995 Protection of Children from Computer Pornography Act to the 1998 Protection of Children from Sexual Predators Act. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the potential young victims were more adept in going online and bypassing security measures than the adults or parents seeking to restrict their activity (Fisk 58-59). Once again, the earlier days of computer crime are defined by thwarted efforts to keep pace with how the crime evolves, just as a generation raised in using computers would be more adept at access than their elders.

Modern Issues
In the past and today, the chief component in computer crime is malware, or the many programs developed to infiltrate secured systems. These exist in constantly evolving forms, from viruses intended to only destroy databanks to sophisticated programs retrieving information in undetectable ways. Ransomware is a particularly recent and powerful form of malware, in which the criminal steals information such as bank account access or private records, and demands payment for their return. What sets this crime apart is a persistent inability for law enforcement to address it in any meaningful way, more so than in other thefts. As the attacks typically originate from Eastern European nations and the hackers employ multiple, anonymous access tools, law enforcement agencies are both victims themselves and advise other victims to pay the ransoms (Scaife et al). Worsening the situation is how the targets are typically minor victims; some ransomware victimizes large organizations like hospitals and government agencies, but most succeed through “spreading a wide net” and, within the span of a day, extorting relatively small amounts of money from ordinary Internet users. U.S. law is further weakened by how such criminals operating from foreign nations are themselves protected by their governments. On one level, then, consistent actions to counter all forms of computer crime have been in place since computers became ordinary in living. On another, however, the reality of continually evolving technology equally consistently defies identifying and pursuing the computer criminal.

As the above makes clear, computer crime is different than any other type simply because it centers on technologies both complex and perpetually evolving. This generates the noted “arms race” in terms of response, and it is likely that this circumstance will ever be resolved, given both the universal dependence on computers and the innate nature of the devices as constantly advancing in technology. The efforts to combat the crime must be maintained, nonetheless, and if only because so many of the issues of detection, prevention, and prosecution of computer crime arising in the 1980s remain extreme threats and realities today.

  • Casey, Eoghan. Digital Evidence and Computer Crime: Forensic Science, Computers and the
    Internet, 3rd Ed. Academic Press, 2004.
  • Fisk, Nathan W. Framing Internet Safety: The Governance of Youth Online. MIT Press, 2016.
  • Peterson, Andrea. “This ’80s-era criminal hacking law scares cybersecurity researchers.”
    Washington Post. 5 Aug. 2015. Web. 4 Aug. 2018.
  • Scaife, Nolen, et al. “Cryptolock (and drop it): stopping ransomware attacks on user
    data.” Distributed Computing Systems (ICDCS), 2016 IEEE 36th International Conference on IEEE, 2016.
  • Shipley, Todd G., and Art Bowker. Investigating Internet Crimes: An Introduction to Solving
    Crimes in Cyberspace. Elsevier, 2013.

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