According to the United States Department of Justice, computer crimes include "any violations of criminal law that involve a knowledge of computer technology for their perpetration, investigation, or prosecution." Because of the sheer number of offences that come under the umbrella of computer crime, it's an area that still remains difficult to define. The diversity of the activities that come under this banner and the ever-expanding new technologies that change the way computer criminals operate make it impossible to narrow down further. Computer crimes include everything from sending a virus in a spam email to organized large scale hacking, known as "cyber warfare" on a company or even a government — a well-known example of this is when Russia hacked and modified official Estonian government websites in retaliation for the Baltic republic moving a Russian war monument in 2007.
"Cyber-crime," as it is also known, has risen enormously on a global scale in recent years. This is for two reasons. The first is the ever-increasing number of businesses relying on computers to trade and the second is the increase in people mastering the technology to commit the crimes. With "e-commerce" becoming commonplace for businesses of all shapes and sizes, today any company is at risk – not just traditional targets like communication companies, credit agencies and stockbrokers.
Computer crime is estimated to cost the United States—and the global economy— billions of dollars a year, although again this is hard to calculate for a number of factors, from the difficulty in defining and detecting the crime, to victims being reluctant to come forward for fear of damaging their own business or reputation like credit card companies, for example. As a result successful prosecutions can be very hard to obtain. A notable exception was the Hao brothers, who were sentenced to death in China in 1999 for hacking into the computer system of a state-owned bank and transferring money into their own accounts.
Prosecuting computer crime can be tackled at state, federal or an international level depending on the offence. There are three recognized categories of computer crime in the United States: The computer as the object of the crime – generally theft; as the subject of the crime, ie a recipient of a virus or hacking; or the use of the computer as an instrument with which to commit traditional crimes like fraud, identity theft or the circulation of obscene or illegal materials. Therefore there can be no such thing as a ‘typical' cyber-criminal. They can be anyone from people illegally downloading film or music, self-taught hackers operating from bedrooms or disgruntled employees wanting to disrupt their workplace network, to more sophisticated fraudsters, pedophile rings, and those undertaking international espionage and cyber terrorism.
In their paper Countering the Cyber Crime Threat (2006), Debra Wong Yang and Brian M. Hoffstadt explain: "Cyber criminals have already proven themselves to be resourceful and innovative as they have continued to invent and perpetrate new and ever-evolving forms of attacks aimed at computers and the data they contain." When a cyber-crime investigations unit was set up in Kentucky in 2008, police claimed as many as 80 percent of the state's crimes were committed using a computer.
In 2010, figures showed computer crime in Wales had more than doubled in one year. It became the first country in Europe to appoint "e-crime officers" in its police forces, who said: "E-criminals are highly resourceful, and as they're not bound by the same laws and regulations they're forever one step ahead of the game, finding new ways to attack and compromise businesses." It is also a problem in the developing world, with Sri Lanka reporting a 94% year on year increase in cyber-crime in 2010.
But some argue that talk of "cyber terrorists" and technological masterminds continually thwarting the authorities could be disingenuous. Some criminologists and academics have gone so far as to even attempt to deny the existence of computer crime, claiming excitable media coverage can lead to "moral panic," and that really, computer crime and computer criminals can be defined by and be subject to already existing laws without the exotic "cyber" prefix. David S Wall, in his 2001 book Crime and the Internet used the international panic that surrounded the Y2K Millennium Bug—meant to derail every computer in the world as the year 2000 came in— as an example of the press playing on the public's fears.