Magazine article The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Making Computer Crime Count

Magazine article The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Making Computer Crime Count

Article excerpt

Does computer crime pose a serious threat to America's national security? Recent highly publicized computer virus attacks have shown that computer crime has become an increasing problem. Unfortunately, the absence of a standard definition for computer crime, a lack of reliable criminal statistics on the problem, and significant underreporting of the threat pose vexing challenges for police agencies.

Sensational headlines, such as "Nation Faces Grave Danger of Electronic Pearl Harbor," [1] "Internet Paralyzed by Hackers," [2] "Computer Crime Costs Billions," [3] have become common. Law enforcement organizations cannot determine exactly how many computer crimes occur each year. No agreed-upon national or international definition of terms, such as computer crime, high-tech crime, or information technology crime, exists. Thus, as a class of criminal activities, computer crime is unique in its position as a crime without a definition, which prevents police organizations from accurately assessing the nature and scope of the problem.

Internationally, legislative bodies define criminal offenses in penal codes. Crimes, such as murder, rape, and aggravated assault, all suggest similar meanings to law enforcement professionals around the world. But what constitutes a computer crime? The term covers a wide range of offenses. For example, if a commercial burglary occurs and a thief steals a computer, does this indicate a computer crime or merely another burglary? Does copying a friend's program disks constitute a computer crime? The answer to each of these questions may depend on various jurisdictions. [4]

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has defined computer crime as "any violation of criminal law that involved the knowledge of computer technology for its perpetration, investigation, or prosecution." [5] Some experts have suggested that DOJ's definition could encompass a series of crimes that have nothing to do with computers. For example, if an auto theft investigation required a detective to use "knowledge of computer technology" to investigate a vehicle's identification number (VIN) in a states's department of motor vehicle database, under DOJ guidelines, auto theft could be classified as a computer crime. While the example may stretch the boundaries of logic, it demonstrates the difficulties inherent in attempting to describe and classify computer criminality.

Over the past 15 years, several international organizations, such as the United Nations, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Council of Europe, the G-8, [6] and Interpol, all have worked to combat the problem of computer crime. [7] These organizations have provided guidance in understanding this problem. Yet, despite their efforts, no single definition of computer crime has emerged that the majority of criminal justice professionals use. Although many state and federal laws define terms, such as "unauthorized access to a computer system" and "computer sabotage," neither Title 18 nor any of the state penal codes provide a definition for the term computer crime.

Defining criminal phenomena is important because it allows police officers, detectives, prosecutors, and judges to speak intelligently about a given criminal offense. Furthermore, generally accepted definitions facilitate the aggregation of statistics, which law enforcement can analyze to reveal previously undiscovered criminal threats and patterns.

Benefits of Reporting Computer Crime Statistics

Crime statistics serve an important role in law enforcement. First, they allow for the appropriate allocation of very limited resources. For example, if a community suffered a 73 percent increase in the number of sexual assaults, police administrators immediately would take steps to address the problem by adding more rape investigators, extra patrol in the specific area, and increased community awareness projects. …

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