Cyber crime is a global problem today that affects computer users and others in all developed and developing countries that rely heavily on computing and communications technologies. The need to respond effectively has, therefore, been a common theme throughout the networked world, although the level of concern and the impetus for reform have been closely correlated with the degree of usage and hence the risk of victimisation. Those countries with the highest usage levels tend to have taken greater steps with respect to regulation and law reform. ‘Cyber crime’ has, however, taken on a life of its own to some extent, and entered popular discourse today. Although cyber crime overlaps with a number of other areas of economic crime and white-collar crime, there are some aspects that are unique. Some forms of illegality simply could not have been committed prior to the introduction of computers and so, in this sense, cyber crimes (or at least elements of them) are dissimilar from conventional crimes. In addition, with cyber crime the level of apprehension of victimisation felt by many businesses is far greater than what appears to be the actual incidence of offences. The presence of computers in the commission of crime has enhanced the seriousness with which these crimes are viewed, at least in the minds of those at risk of victimization and those who have actually suffered from these crimes. It remains to be seen whether the courts deal with persons convicted of cyber crimes in ways similar to, or dissimilar from, the ways in which they treat those convicted of conventional crimes.
Cyber crime is a term used broadly to describe activity in which computers or computer networks are the tool, target, or theme of criminal activity. These categories are not exclusive and many activities can be characterized as falling in one or more categories. Many types of cyber crime are simply extensions of existing criminal activities, with the computer and internet severing them from the perpetrator’s geographical location, providing anonymity and protection from law enforcement. While computers and the internet are valuable technological advances that benefit contemporary society in numerous ways, like all tools they can be used for evil as well as good. For those who put their self-centered desires above the good of others, and of society as a whole, they offer seemingly unlimited possibilities for criminal activity.
Defining and Measuring Cyber Crime
Before proceeding with our substantive discussion it is important to examine the definition, nature and scope of cyber crime. Clearly, digital technologies lie at the heart of cyber crime and these include computers, communication technologies and networked services. References to computers and digital technologies are used interchangeably.
There is, at present, a wide range of adjectives used to describe computer crime virtual, online, cyber, digital, high-tech, computer-related, Internet-related, telecommunications related, computer assisted, electronic, and ‘e- crime’. In the same way that the term ‘white-collar crime’ sparked crucial discussion and controversy, these terms coined to delimit the scope of computer related misconduct are likely to be similarly problematic. ‘Cyber crime’ is used generically to describe a range of criminal offences, only some of which specifically relate to computers and the telecommunications infrastructure that supports their use. In this sense, it is similar to terms such as ‘fraud’, (such as ‘obtaining financial advantage by deception’), all of which contain an element of dishonesty. Similarly, ‘cyber crime’, spelt as a single word in the titles of some recent pieces of legislation such as the Australian Cyber crime Act 2001 and the Council of Europe’s Convention on Cyber crime, is a way of describing conduct that could entail a range of offences, many of which have nothing to do with computers in their legislative descriptions. Defining the term ‘cyber crime’ raises conceptual complexities. The term ‘cyberspace’ was first coined by William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer (1984) to describe a high-tech society in which people inhabit a virtual world divorced from terrestrial life. It has been used since then in a wide range of contexts to describe almost anything to do with computers, communications systems, the Internet, or, indeed, life in the twenty-first century. Chatterjee (2001, p. 81) reviews the many ways in which the term ‘cyberspace’ has been used, as well as the disparate other terms used to describe computer-related activities including those that infringe criminal laws.
Some have argued that virtual crime should be characterised as separate from and less serious than terrestrial crime, although Williams (2001, pp. 152–3) believes that ‘the “real” and the “virtual” are not separate experiences and as such the nature of online communication enables a perpetrator to inflict recognisable levels of harm upon a victim via textual slurs and abuse’. The term ‘cyber crime’ encompasses any proscribed conduct perpetrated through the use of, or against, digital technologies, the pursuit or harassment of a victim by means of computers. This does not normally entail any new type of crime; the only new element is the means by which it is committed. Similarly, the theft of funds electronically is no different in terms of financial loss from the theft of currency from a bank, and the display of obscene images online (whether involving real human actors or images of people created electronically) involves the same affront to those who view the images as when they see them in a magazine. There may be differences in the extent and scale of the impact, but the effects of the acts themselves remain the same. Recently enacted laws targeting offences specifically related to computers, such as unauthorised access or modification of data, but the majority involves conventional crimes such as theft and other regulatory offences. The future will undoubtedly see new criminal laws enacted that have particular relevance to computers and new technologies.