Crime in the Computer Age: The Law Enforcement Perspective

By Litt, Robert S. | Texas Review of Law & Politics, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Crime in the Computer Age: The Law Enforcement Perspective


Litt, Robert S., Texas Review of Law & Politics


Computer crime is a result of new technologies that are bringing increasing benefits to personal communications, financial transactions, medical care, and many other areas. These same new technologies are often used to threaten the safety of each of us as individuals and our security as a nation. The same kind of technologies that allow almost instantaneous point-of sale verification of your credit card can also be used by hackers who want to break into banks and steal your money.1 The same technologies that allow you to e-mail a photograph of your child to your mother halfway around the globe can also be used by pedophiles to transmit child pornography.2

Technological developments are being pressed upon us with a speed that makes it impossible to stay ahead. I am hoping to impart to you a sense of what some of the problems are and an understanding of what law enforcement is fundamentally trying to do to meet them. I want to emphasize that I do not think anybody in law enforcement purports to have the answers to these problems. They are extraordinarily difficult. Essentially, in an era of rapidly changing technology, we are trying to preserve the investigative capabilities that we had before these technologies came into play. Nobody is looking to expand legal authorities that are given to law enforcement under existing laws; it is just a question of continuing to make those authorities effective in the face of changing technology.

Scott Charney, who is the head of the Department of Justice's Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, suggests that we think about the role of computers and crime in three different ways.3 The first is that a computer can be the target of a criminal offense. This is what is commonly known as "hacking." Hacking occurs when people try to attack a computer and impair the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of a computer or a computer network. For example, one hacker tried to break into courthouse files and commute his own sentence to probation. Unfortunately for him, he had the wrong court. He had been sentenced in state court, but tried to break into the federal court system. Perhaps even more disconcerting, other hackers have broken into telephone systems and essentially shut down the 911 service.4 As we become more dependent on computers in ways that are not apparent to many of us, these crimes may become more destructive and disruptive.

More often, however, and perhaps not as well known, we see computers used as tools to commit traditional offenses such as fraud or theft.5 There is a well-known instance of a group of hackers in St. Petersburg who broke into a Citibank computer, took $10 million from various customers' accounts, and transmitted the money to accounts in Europe.6 In a slightly different vein, an individual established a website offering collectibles for sale. The problem was that he did not have any collectibles. He was just collecting people's credit card numbers for reuse and sale.7 Industrial spies have used computer networks to break into the networks of their competitors to steal their intellectual property.8 These are all common examples of the second way in which computers are involved in crime.

The third aspect of computer crime involves information storage.9 Computers serve as large filing cabinets and, thus, are repositories of evidence in many cases. Where law enforcement used to go to court to get a search warrant to seize records that are evidence of a crime, we now find ourselves seizing computers that contain those same paper records. Drug dealers used to carry around a little black book with the names of their customers and their transactions, but they may now use palmsized notebook computers as the record-keeping system of choice. Unfortunately, it is often more difficult to read the contents of the files on a computer-even when it has been legally seized-than it is to read the paper that has been taken out of somebody's file drawer. …

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