Policing the Internet

By Sullivan, Scott D. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Policing the Internet


Sullivan, Scott D., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Children grow up hearing the warning "Don't talk to strangers," and as adults, they usually remain wary of people they do not know. Yet, every day, adults and children alike invite strangers into their home. By signing on to the Internet, they give strangers the opportunity to crash their computers, access and misuse personal information, manipulate their finances, and threaten their safety. Moreover, as the Internet grows and becomes more a part of individuals' daily routines, their potential exposure to Internet crime increases.

When computer users connect to the Internet, they link their computers to a server's computer, which, in turn, connects to thousands of other servers. These computers provide the framework of the Internet. As millions of users sign on to their respective servers and transmit and receive bits of information, they create a maze of connections comparable to a web. From this analogy comes the concept of the World Wide Web.

From a criminal's point of view, the Web offers anonymity and a buffer from getting caught, which, in turn, creates an opportunity for the "perfect" crime. Indeed, the Internet has become a breeding ground for crime. Thieves transfer funds from victims' bank accounts to their own. Vandals send computer viruses to destroy computers. Pedophiles exchange child pornography with others or chat with minors, building their trust so they can set up meetings under false pretenses. These offenses represent merely a few of the crimes currently being committed on the Internet. Media headlines such as "The Pirates of the Internet,"(1) "Prosecutors Put Sting into Online Search for Pedophiles,(2) and "Defense Drops Bombshell in Cybersex Case,"(3) serve as evidence of the peril computer users face daily. The perpetrators are men and women from all walks of life. All they need to commit their acts is a computer, an online service, and a victim.

As history has proven, freedom and technological and societal advances usually come with a price. For example, the advent of the automobile offered a new freedom of travel and connected the nation like never before. However, along with these advantages came many new, unforeseen risks and dangers. To address these problems, the government created volumes of laws and regulations and a myriad of commissions and bureaucracies.

Similarly, the popularity of the Internet has spawned online dangers not previously foreseen. While the debate continues on whether new laws and commissions should address Internet crime, law enforcement does not need to wait. Instead, law enforcement agencies can attack new high-tech crimes with familiar, well-established laws.

Combatting Internet Crime

Based on a common belief system, state and federal criminal laws often overlap and complement one another. Accordingly, every state penal code and many federal statutes address most crimes. While crimes differ in name, threshold, or degree of punishment, the culpable behavior remains the same. For example, larceny represents a crime in every criminal code. Accordingly, whether the object of desire is a car, money, or an article of clothing, the theft represents a violation of a larceny statute. But what if the thief steals money from a bank account using the Internet? Vladimir Levin did just that when he used the Internet to access a bank's customers' identification codes and passwords and transfer $10 million dollars to his own accounts.(4)

Although no criminal statute expressly prohibits Internet larceny, the FBI investigated the crime and tracked down Levin. Federal prosecutors for the Southern District of New York indicted him under a criminal statute that long predates the Internet - bank robbery. After an international effort to bring him to justice, Levin was extradited to the United States from Great Britain and pleaded guilty.(5)

When the federal bank robbery statute does not cover Internet larceny, federal prosecutors can choose from an arsenal of applicable criminal statutes. …

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