The Criminology of Computer Crime

For one of my courses I have to write an essay on a topic related to computer forensics that hasn’t been taught in class. I have chosen to write mine on criminology of computer crime, and it’s so interesting! If you want a really good overview of criminology then read the following two PDFs – Criminological Theory and The Criminology of Computer Crime. I will be summarizing some of the things written here.

Criminology is the “scientific study of the nature, extent, causes, and control of criminal behaviour in both the individual and in society” (Wikipedia) and is a mixture of sociology, psychology and law. Areas of research include: incidence, forms, causes and consequences of crime, as well as social and governmental regulations and reaction to crime. It sounds so interesting I’m almost tempted to do this Masters in Criminology and Criminal Justice at Edinburgh Uni. But maybe I should just get a job 😛

One of the more interesting theories is called “Routine Activities”, developed by Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson in 1979 (One thing that struck me was how slow paced this field is – a lot of my references in my essay are pre 1990). The idea is that the motivation to commit a crime and the supply of offenders are constant. They argue crime is normal, and only needs opportunity. Cohen and Felson argue crime occurs when three things converge:

  1. A motivated offender
  2. A suitable target
  3. The absence of a capable guardian

The third point could mean either a parent or guardian for the offender holding them back, or the protection of the target, e.g. firewalls and passwords. 

To me it feels a bit wrong to suggest crime is normal, but Routine Activity theory does fit a couple of modern crimes including copyright infringement and peer-to-peer sharing. There is an absence of any kind of guardian for MP3s (although measures like DRM are around) and most studies seem to suggest people think it’s ok to share music. But then again, most people don’t see it as a crime, and the ratio of music sharing to convictions is so low that the benefits do seem to outweigh the risks.

Another theory is called Deterrence Theory. This is the idea that offenders make a choice to commit the crime by weighing up the risks and benefits of the act. General deterrence seeks to discourage prospective offenders by threatening punishment. Sometimes offenders are made examples of to deter others (The US government seem to be doing this for Gary McKinnon – he faces 60 years jail time for hacking into Pentagon website). However Deterrence Theory have several assumptions:

  1. Individuals are rational
  2. They are aware of the penalty
  3. They view the penalty and risk of being caught as unpleasant

For music sharing there is a very low risk of punishment, and it is unknown what the punishment will be in any case. Making examples of a few people doesn’t seem to be working either. I think in a lot of cases this theory does work; but at the moment the assumptions above do not fit the average music sharer.

The Criminology of Computer Crime PDF mentioned earlier states that “there have been very few attempts to develop and apply criminological theories to the concept of digital crime”. All the theories I’ve found on the web can be applied to computer crime, but no new ones have really been developed. I don’t think there are any theories about the phenomenon of online sharing of copyrighted material, and why people don’t see it as a crime. It certainly is an interesting subject and breaks the conventional idea that the majority of people will obey laws (even if they seem unethical). Why is music sharing so different?

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