Magazine article The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Computer Crime: An Emerging Challenge for Law Enforcement

Magazine article The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Computer Crime: An Emerging Challenge for Law Enforcement

Article excerpt

Law enforcement has withstood many challenges over the years. Prohibition, organized crime, riots, drug trafficking, and violent crime exemplify some of the complex problems the police have faced. Now law enforcement confronts another problem that is somewhat unusual - computer-related crime.

Several factors make this type of criminality difficult to address. Lawbreakers have integrated highly technical methods with traditional crimes and developed creative new types of crime, as well. They use computers to cross state and national boundaries electronically, thus complicating investigations. Moreover, the evidence of these crimes is neither physical nor human but, if it exists, is little more than electronic impulses and programming codes.

Regrettably, the police have fallen behind in the computer age and must overcome a steep learning curve. To make matters worse, computer crime is sometimes difficult for police officials to comprehend and to accept as a major problem with a local impact, regardless of the size or location of their communities.

Futurist Alvin Toffler identified information as the commodity of greatest value as the new millennium approaches.(1) Indeed, the Securing Proprietary Information Committee of the American Society of Industrial Security observed that the value of a company's future lies not in its tangible assets, but in the "intellectual capital" of the business.(2) In most businesses today, intellectual property is kept in computers. As a consequence, the computer has become the target - and sometimes the instrument - of crimes.

We conducted a national study of corporate security directors to explore the environment of computer crime and identify some critical issues facing policy makers in the future. The creation of computer crime units in the Secret Service, Air Force Office of Special Investigations, FBI, and a small number of state and local agencies shows that law enforcement agencies are beginning to recognize the significance of computer crime. The growth of such groups as the Florida Association of Computer Crime Investigators and the High Tech Crime Investigators Association, as well as the proliferation of computer crime specialists in such agencies as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Royal Thai Police, and London Metropolitan Police Department, confirms the rising worldwide awareness of computer crime. Still, as one respondent to this study observed:

I feel the weakest link is the lack of education in [public] law enforcement relating to computer-technology crimes. The law enforcement community has devoted [itself] to the high priority violent crimes, lumping computer crimes into a low priority status, yet the losses to computer crime could fund a small country.


While many crimes using computer technology mirror traditional offenses - such as theft or fraud - the technical complexity, speed, and creative avenues by which these crimes occur pose particular problems for detection, prosecution, and prevention. If the trend of computer crime over the last 5 years provides any indication of the future, law enforcement's problems have just begun.


The extent of computer crimes appears to be expanding rapidly. A study conducted by the American Bar Association (ABA) in 1987 found that of the 300 corporations and government agencies questioned, 72 (24 percent) claimed to have been the victim of a computer-related crime in the 12 months prior to the survey.(3) The combined estimated losses from these crimes ranged from $145 million to $730 million over the 1-year period.

This broad range illustrates the problem in estimating losses. Not only is it difficult to identify and document these crimes, it is even more difficult to place a monetary value on the loss of intellectual property for which the actual value may not be known for months or even years.

Two years later, in 1989, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) surveyed 898 public and private sector organizations that conducted business by computer. …

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