Computer Crime Research Paper

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Computerization significantly eases the performance of many tasks. For example, the speed and ability to communicate with people is fostered by the Internet, a worldwide network that is used to send communiqués and provide access to the world-wide web. But this same speed and ability to communicate also opens the door to criminal conduct. Computer crime plays a significant role in the criminal law of the information age. Accompanying the influx of computers is an increase in criminal acts and, as a result, an increase in the number of statutes to punish those who abuse and misuse this technology.

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Computer crime, sometimes known as cybercrime, is a serious concern. The crime can be perpetrated instantaneously and its effects can spread with incredible quickness. Furthermore, the ever-increasing use of computers, especially in serving critical infrastructure, makes computer criminality increasingly important.

There is an endless list of possible crimes that can occur through use of the Internet. For example, the Internet can be a medium used for committing hate crimes, pornography, consumer fraud, stalking, terrorism, theft of security or trade secrets, software piracy, economic espionage, and financial institution fraud. The threat of computer crime is underlined by the fact that a security organization such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation was forced to temporarily take down its Internet site in 1991 after an attack by hackers. Companies have been equally vulnerable and have incurred millions of dollars in damage due to the effect of certain viruses.

Misuse of the computer threatens individual and business privacy, public safety, and national security. There have been considerable efforts made by state, federal, and international governments to curb computer crime.

Categorizing Computer-Related Crime

A precise definition of computer crime is problematic. This is because of the array of different forms and forums in which the crime may appear. A single category cannot accommodate the wide divergence of conduct, perpetrators, victims, and motives found in examining computer crimes. Adding to this confusion is the fact that computer crimes also can vary depending upon the jurisdiction criminalizing the conduct. The criminal conduct can be the subject of punishment under a state statute. There is also an odd mixture of federal offenses that can be used to prosecute computer crimes. But computer crimes are not just domestic. Because computers operate internationally, the definition of computer crime can be influenced by the law of other countries as well. Despite debate among leading experts, there is no internationally recognized definition of computer crime.

At the core of the definition of computer crime is activity specifically related to computer technologies. Thus, stealing a computer or throwing a computer at another person would not fall within the scope of the definition of computer crime in that these activities do not use the technology as the means or object of the criminal act.

Computers serve in several different roles related to criminal activity. The three generally accepted categories speak in terms of computers as communication tools, as targets, and as storage devices.

The computer as a communication tool presents the computer as the object used to commit the crime. This category includes traditional offenses such as fraud committed through the use of a computer. For example, the purchase of counterfeit artwork at an auction held on the Internet uses the computer as the tool for committing the crime. While the activity could easily occur offline at an auction house, the fact that a computer is used for the purchase of this artwork may cause a delay in the detection of it being a fraud. The use of the Internet may also make it difficult to find the perpetrator of the crime.

A computer can also be the target of criminal activity, as seen when hackers obtain unauthorized access to Department of Defense sites. Theft of information stored on a computer also falls within this category. The unauthorized procuring of trade secrets for economic gain from a computer system places the computer in the role of being a target of the criminal activity.

A computer can also be tangential to crime when, for example, it is used as a storage place for criminal records. For example, a business engaged in illegal activity may be using a computer to store its records. The seizure of computer hard drives by law enforcement demonstrates the importance of this function to the evidence gathering process.

In some instances, computers serve in a dual capacity, as both the tool and target of criminal conduct. For example, a computer is the object or tool of the criminal conduct when an individual uses it to insert a computer virus into the Internet. In this same scenario, computers also serve in the role of targets in that the computer virus may be intended to cripple the computers of businesses throughout the world.

The role of the computer in the crime can also vary depending upon the motive of the individual using the computer. For example, a juvenile hacker may be attempting to obtain access to a secured facility for the purpose of demonstrating computer skills. On the other hand, a terrorist may seek access to this same site for the purpose of compromising material at this location. Other individuals may be infiltrating the site for the economic purpose of stealing a trade secret. Finally, unauthorized computer access may be a display of revenge by a terminated or disgruntled employee.

In addition to computer crimes having several roles, the individuals who commit the crimes do not fit one description. The only common characteristic of the individuals committing these crimes is their association with a computer. The perpetrator of a computer crime could easily be a juvenile hacker, sophisticated business person, or terrorist. Likewise, the victims of computer crimes do not fit a specific category in that the spectrum of possible victims includes individuals, financial institutions, government agencies, corporations, and foreign governments.

Computer crimes often fit within traditional criminal law categories in that computers can be used to commit crimes such as theft, fraud, copyright infringement, espionage, pornography, or terrorism. In some instances, existing criminal categories adapt new terminology to reflect the computer nature of the crime. For example, cyberterrorism is used when the terrorist activity involves computers, and cyberlaundering relates to money laundering via computer. Trespass crimes take on a new dimension when the unauthorized access occurs in cyberspace. For example, in 2000, the website for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was defaced by intruders who downloaded e-mail addresses and credit card numbers from the site.

Criminal conduct that may appear to have no connection with computers can, in fact, be affected by technology. For example, stalking presents itself as a serious concern growing from increased use of the Internet. Cyberstalking generally involves the stalking of a person via the Internet or other electronic communication. Access to personal information on the Internet makes cyberstalking particularly problematic. Recognizing the need to consider the effect of technology on crimes such as stalking, the Attorney General issued the ‘‘1999 Report on Cyberstalking: A New Challenge for Law Enforcement and Industry’’ that describes the efforts that law enforcement can take to deter this criminal activity. First Amendment concerns factor into whether these and other legal initiatives regarding computer crimes will withstand constitutional challenges.

Computer crimes do not always correlate with traditional descriptions of illegality. Some activities present unique forms of criminal conduct that bear no resemblance to common law or existing crimes. For example, computerization allows for new types of crimes, such as trafficking in passwords.

Other computer crimes may have a resemblance to traditional crimes but the conduct may not fit neatly into an existing category. For example, a ‘‘page-jacker’’ who misappropriates material from another individual’s website may face criminal liability for a copyright violation. If the ‘‘page-jacker,’’ however, manipulates a website to redirect individuals to his or her own website, it remains uncertain whether this fraudulent conduct fits within classic theft or fraud offenses. Specific computer crime statutes are tailored to meet these new forms of criminal conduct. The ability the Internet provides in accessing information with a degree of anonymity makes some crimes, such as identity theft, important priorities for the criminal justice system.

The technical and changing nature of computer technology can make it difficult for those who are drafting criminal statutes. The array of new terms and new meanings given to existing terms requires a certain level of expertise in order to understand the computer activity. Examples of simple words used in the context of computer activity are the terms ‘‘virus’’ and ‘‘worm.’’ A federal court explained, ‘‘A ‘worm’ is a program that travels from one computer to another but does not attach itself to the operating system of the computer it ‘infects.’’’ This differs from a computer ‘‘virus,’’ which does attach to the computer operating system that it enters (United States v. Morris, 928 F.2d 504, 505n.1 (2d Cir. 1991)).

Computer Crime Statutes

Legislation at both the federal and state level provide for the prosecution of computer crime. Although computer crimes can be prosecuted using federal statutes that are exclusively focused on computer crime, many prosecutors do not use these specific computer-related statutes. Instead, prosecutors often continue to use traditional criminal law statutes in computer crime prosecutions. Although computer crime laws develop to accommodate new forms of criminal activity, the law has moved relatively slowly in comparison to the rapid development of computer technology.

Federal Statutes

At the forefront of federal computer-related offenses is the computer fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1030. Initially passed in 1984 (Counterfeit Access Device and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984), the statute has been amended on several occasions, including a significant expansion of the statute in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986.

This computer fraud statute prohibits seven different types of computer-related activity. These can basically be described as: (1) electronic espionage; (2) unauthorized access to financial institution information, information from a United States department or agency, or information from any protected computer involved in interstate or foreign commerce; (3) intentionally browsing in a government computer or affecting a government computer; (4) using the computer for schemes of fraud or theft; (5) transmitting programs that cause damage or accessing a protecting computer and causing damage; (6) interstate trafficking of passwords; and (7) extortion threats to a protected computer. The statute includes both felony and misdemeanor provisions with different penalties depending on the specific conduct. Additionally, 18 U.S.C. § 1030(g) includes a civil remedy for those damaged through violations of the statute.

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) (18 U.S.C. §§ 2510 et. seq., 2701–2710) was initially enacted to criminalize eavesdropping. In 1986 Congress updated this privacy legislation so that it was not limited to conduct involving traditional wires and electronic communications. The EPCA now covers all forms of digital communications.

By providing privacy rights to Internet communications, the EPCA equips federal prosecutors with a tool for curbing criminal activity involving the Internet. This act allows prosecutors to proceed with criminal charges when a defendant compromises a victim’s privacy rights by improperly accessing the victim’s computer system. The ECPA details the statutory exceptions that are provided to system operators and to law enforcement. For example, where service providers can monitor traffic data on the system, they are precluded from reading material that is being transmitted over the Internet.

Another federal statute that permits prosecution of computer-related activity is the Economic Espionage Act (EEA). Passed by Congress in 1996, this act focuses on the protection of trade secrets. Trade secrets, a term defined in the statute, include an array of different types of information that have an actual or potential value and that an owner has ‘‘taken reasonable measures’’ to keep secret. The EEA offers trade secret protection to both businesses and the government. The significance of information to society, and the problems that are attached to protecting this information, make the EEA an important step in how the law can provide protection from computer crime.

The EEA includes statutes pertaining to both domestic and foreign trade secrets. The statute 18 U.S.C. § 1831 prohibits the misappropriation of trade secrets that benefit any foreign government. In contrast, 18 U.S.C. § 1832 prohibits the theft of domestic trade secrets. The EEA provides for extraterritorial application, allowing U.S. prosecutors to pursue cases that meet criteria set forth in the statute, despite the fact that the criminal activity may have occurred outside the United States. The EEA also permits forfeiture, such as forfeiture of computer equipment, as a possible penalty. In an effort to encourage businesses that are victims of a theft of trade secrets to cooperate in pursuing prosecution, the EEA attempts to preserve the confidentiality of the trade secret during the criminal prosecution.

The availability and dissemination of pornography is exacerbated by technology. The accessibility of pornography via the Internet is a concern of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 and the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996. The child pornography and luring statutes specifically include activities related to use of a computer (18 U.S.C. § 2251 et. seq., 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b)). These statutes and others have been added to the criminal code to provide additional protections to children. When reviewing these statutes, courts have the difficult task of determining the appropriate line between individual liberties, such as privacy and free speech, and criminal conduct.

Many federal statutes prohibit conduct in ‘‘technology-neutral’’ ways. These statutes permit prosecutors to proceed with the prosecution of criminal activity involving a computer without having to wait for lawmakers to create a specific computer-related crime. For example, the sale of drugs without a prescription can be prosecuted using a traditional drug statute, even though the activity occurs on the Internet (21 U.S.C. § 353(b)). Similarly, statutes prohibiting the sale, manufacture, or distribution of controlled substances present conduct in a ‘‘technologyneutral’’ way, permitting the use of existing statutes for the prosecution of these crimes (21 U.S.C. §§ 822, 829, 841). Improper gun sales on the Internet, likewise, may be prosecuted using existing gun commerce statutes (18 U.S.C. § 922).

Statutes that include the term ‘‘wires’’ as a means of committing the conduct may allow prosecutors to apply the statute to Internetrelated crimes. For example, a statute that includes the language ‘‘wire communication facility’’ to describe the means by which the criminal conduct occurs, is broad enough to encompass Internet-related crimes. This language is found, for example, in a sports gambling statute (18 U.S.C. § 1081). Thus, businesses conducting sports gambling over the Internet can be prosecuted using the traditional federal gambling laws (18 U.S.C. § 1084).

In the federal arena, one commonly finds computer-related conduct charged using existing statutes that are not uniquely worded to provide for prosecutions involving activity related to computers. Despite the absence of specific reference to computers, individuals engaged in computer-related activity are charged with crimes such as securities fraud (15 U.S.C. § 77q), money laundering (18 U.S.C. § 1956), fraud and related activity in connection with access devices (18 U.S.C. § 1029), and conspiracy (18 U.S.C. § 371).

Three statutes that do explicitly refer to computers that prosecutors continue to use in charging computer-related activity are wire fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1343), copyright infringement (17 U.S.C. § 506 (a)), and illegal transportation of stolen property (18 U.S.C. § 2314).

Wire fraud presents a generic statute that is easily adaptable to a wide array of criminal conduct. Schemes to defraud of ‘‘money or property’’ or the ‘‘intangible right to honest services’’ that use the wires in their furtherance are prohibited by the wire fraud statute (18 U.S.C. § 1343). For example, individuals selling fraudulent products over the Internet can be subject to prosecution under the wire fraud statute.

Software piracy and intellectual property theft are important issues of the information age. Because the Internet offers an easily accessible means for transmitting copyrighted material, these crimes have the effect of costing U.S. businesses substantial sums of money each year. Often prosecutors use the copyright infringement statute (17 U.S.C. § 506 (a)) in proceeding against individuals committing these crimes. The No Electronic Theft Act (P.L. 105–147), passed by Congress in 1997, extends the reach of criminal copyright law to specifically include electronic means as one method for committing the crime (17U S. C. § 501 (a) (1)). The act also expands the scope of the criminal conduct covered under this crime, allowing for prosecutions without a showing that the distributor of the copyrighted material profited from the activity.

Computer crimes also have been prosecuted under the National Stolen Property Act. This was particularly true prior to the passage of the specific computer-related statute, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (18 U.S.C. § 1030). The National Stolen Property Act prohibits certain described activities involving the illegal transportation of stolen property (18 U.S.C. § 2314). There are, however, specific statutory limitations that preclude this offense from being used widely to prosecute computer crimes.

State Statutes

All states have enacted computer crime laws. These laws offer different coverage of possible computer criminality. In some instances the state law resembles provisions found in the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Some states incorporate computer activity into theft and criminal mischief statutes, while others provide laws addressing sophisticated offenses against intellectual property. Computer fraud, unauthorized access offenses, trade secret protection and trespass statutes also exist in some state codes. In some state statutes, there is explicit legislative recognition that the criminal activity is a problem in both the government and private sector.

A state may use different degrees of an offense to reflect the severity of the computer violation. For example, a state may penalize what it terms an aggravated criminal invasion of privacy, which carries a higher penalty than a privacy invasion that is not aggravated. Several states have included forfeiture provisions, which permit the forfeiture of computers and computer systems as a consequence of the illegal conduct. State statutes include civil relief, allowing individuals harmed by violations of the computer statute to sue civilly for damages. Realizing the skills necessary for investigating computer crime, a state may include provisions for the education of law enforcement officers as part of its efforts to combat criminal activity related to computers.

Computer Crime and International Initiatives

Computers can operate globally. Thus, the perpetrator of a computer crime can affect the computers of another country without leaving home. As stated by Attorney General Janet Reno, ‘‘[a] hacker needs no passport and passes no checkpoints.’’ The global nature of the Internet raises a host of international questions, such as what should be considered computer crime and who will have the jurisdiction to prosecute such crime. There are also issues regarding how evidence necessary for a criminal prosecution may be obtained. Mutual assistance treaties between countries often assist in procuring necessary evidence from other countries that may be needed for a criminal prosecution within the United States.

Although the Internet operates internationally, there is no uniformly accepted set of international laws that criminalize computer misuse and abuse. Several international conferences and initiatives, however, have focused on computer crime.

The Council of Europe (COE), an international organization with more than forty member countries, has been at the forefront in promoting international cooperation regarding computer crime. Mutual assistance in the investigation of cybercrime is also a discussion topic of the Group of Eight (G-8) countries (United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan, and Russia). In May 1998, the G-8 countries adopted a set of principles and an action plan to combat computer crimes.

Other international initiatives also have considered computer-related issues. For example, consumer protection policies have been formulated through the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (‘‘OECD’’). Computer crime issues have also been discussed in international forums such as the Vienna International Child Pornography Conference. Additionally, the United Nations produced a manual on the prevention and control of computerrelated crime. The manual stresses the need for international cooperation and global action.

Agencies Focused on Computer Crime

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Justice (DOJ) are the agencies at the forefront of investigation and prosecution of computer crimes. Each of these entities has established separate bodies within the agency that concentrates on computer crimes. There are also interagency groups that focus on computer crimes. In some cases, private businesses are included as a part of the cybergroup. Since most of the victims of computer crimes are businesses, the FBI has stressed the importance of having close business cooperation in the investigation and prosecution of these crimes.

The National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC), established in 1998, focuses on protecting ‘‘critical infrastructures.’’ The NIPC is an interagency body located within the FBI. The NIPC is divided into three sections: (1) the Computer Investigations and Operations Section (CIOS), which coordinates computer crime investigations; (2) the Analysis and Warning Section (AWS), which analyzes information and warns the government and private industry of possible system threats; and (3) the Training, Outreach and Strategy Section (TOSS), which provides training to law enforcement and outreach to private businesses. In addition to the NIPC, the FBI has cybercrime programs in individual FBI offices.

The Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section (CCIPS) of the DOJ is the prosecutorial body coordinating federal computer crime cases throughout the United States. Founded in 1991, CCIPS became a formal section of the DOJ in 1996. CCIPS assists federal prosecutors and law enforcement agents throughout the country. CCIPS works particularly closely with the assistant U.S. attorneys in the individual offices that are handling computer crime cases. Each U.S. attorney’s office designates an assistant U.S. attorney, known as Computer and Telecommunications Coordinators (CTCs), to receive special training for the prosecution of computer crime cases.

The CCIPS also serves a key role in the national and international coordination of efforts to curb computer crimes. It is associated with the National Cybercrime Training Partnership (NCTP), a body that is focused on making certain that law enforcement receives adequate technical training to handle computer crimes. CCIPS also participates in discussions with international bodies such as the G-8 Subgroup on High-Tech Crime and the Council of Europe Experts Committee on Cybercrime.

Numerous other government agencies can play a role in the investigation of computer crimes. For example, if the computer activity involves bomb threats, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) may be involved in the investigation. The investigation of Internet fraud involving the mails may include the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. The U.S. Customs service may play a role in an investigation involving imported software, and the U.S. Secret Service is likely to be involved if the alleged crime is counterfeiting of currency. Likewise, Internet securities fraud may include individuals from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as part of the investigation team.

In some instances the government agency may have developed a particular group focused on computer activity. For example, in July 1998 the Securities and Exchange Commission created the Office of Internet Enforcement (OIE). A key focus of this body is Internet securities fraud. In addition to providing training, the OIE oversees the investigation of improper securities activity involving the Internet. The office also refers matters to other government agencies.

There are also study groups to consider approaches to eradicating computer crimes. On 5 August 1999, President Clinton issued Executive Order 13,133 establishing a working group to consider and make recommendations regarding the existence of unlawful conduct on the Internet. The report of the group, issued in March 2000, recommends a three-part approach for addressing unlawful conduct on the Internet. It calls for analysis through a ‘‘policy framework’’ of Internet regulation of unlawful conduct to assure consistency in the treatment of online and offline conduct and ensure the protection of privacy and civil liberties. It stresses the need for law enforcement funding, training, and international cooperation. It also calls for continued support from the private sector. A key focus of the report is the need to develop educational methods to combat computer crime.

The private sector has been included in many of the agency efforts to curtail computer crime. An example of a joint effort between the government and business is seen in the Cybercitizen Partnership, an alliance between high-tech industry and the government. As an aspect of this partnership, the government and private industry will share computer knowledge to achieve a more secure system. An aim of this partnership is to promote computer ethics and educate users. In an effort to become more aware of computer crimes, the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center established the Internet Fraud Complaint Center (IFCC). Established as a result of this partnership is a website that offers victims of Internet fraud a way to report Internet fraud online.

Government agencies have also been involved in educating consumers about computer abuses. For example, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) uses the computer to alert and educate consumers and businesses on privacy and fraud issues that pertain to the Internet.

Computer Crime and Privacy Issues

Computers present new considerations for both substantive criminal law and criminal procedure. At the heart of many of the questions is the appropriate balance between privacy rights and necessary criminal investigation. It is particularly problematic with respect to computer crimes, since serious national security issues can arise when computers are misused.

The tension between the government’s need to secure information to investigate criminal conduct and privacy concerns of individuals and businesses appears prominently in the debate concerning encryption. Encryption offers individuals and businesses the ability to protect the privacy of data being transferred on the Internet. Encryption is particularly useful in protecting trade secrets in the commercial market. Encryption, however, also can be used to avoid detection by individuals who are committing unlawful activities. By encrypting data, individuals can store data, transmit data, and harmfully use data for criminal purposes. The Department of Justice has expressed concern that securely encrypted material can undermine law enforcement efforts. Unlike law enforcement’s ability to obtain court authorized wiretaps for information transmitted over the telephone, securely encrypted matter may preclude the government from using the material.


Computers add a new dimension to criminal law, presenting many issues for law enforcement. At the forefront of law enforcement concerns is the necessity to secure adequate training to combat these crimes. This requires additional resources. The technical sophistication needed to follow the ‘‘electronic trail’’ far surpasses traditional methods of investigation. In some cases data are encrypted, making it difficult for police authorities to discern the contents of the information. The detection of criminal conduct may also be hampered by the reluctance of entities to report an unauthorized computer access. Corporations may fear the negative publicity that might result as a consequence of their systems being compromised. In many cases, unauthorized computer access may go undetected by the individual or entity whose computer system had been invaded.

Equally challenging are the policy and legal issues. It is necessary to enact legislation that will sufficiently prohibit the abuses of new and developing technology. The speed with which technology develops makes this a continual concern. In some cases, the line between what will be considered criminal conduct and what will be civil remains uncertain. A common debate in discussions of business crimes is whether the activity is an aggressive business practice, or alternatively a crime. Further, issues of jurisdiction and enforcement power present special problems given that the Internet operates internationally. This can become particularly problematic when countries adopt different standards of what constitutes crime and different penalties for computerrelated criminal activity.

The Internet also presents national security concerns since computers serve instrumental roles in the delivery of emergency services, government operations, banking, transportation, energy, and telecommunications. As technology develops, the law needs to respond to these new developments to deter those who would abuse and misuse the new technology.


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