27 Jan 2015

Crime is changing, and technology is playing a major role

News last week that crime rates had fallen to a record low gives an indication as to how that shift is taking place. Yes, violent crime is on the rise, but the Office for National Statistics believes that’s down to better recording by the police.


The undeniable increase has been in fraud and “sexual material offences”, both indicative of a new front in crime.

In pre-digital days, acquisitive crime mainly worked like this: criminal threatens or inflicts violence, victim surrenders property, criminal takes ownership of property.┬áIt’s a model that’s propped up criminal incomes since the days of flint axes in pre-history.

Now consider digital crimes such as hacking: there’s no violence involved, and after the offence is committed the victim still retains their property (be it credit card details, passwords, etc).

Instead the digital criminal has a copy of the property and is able to exploit it without necessarily depriving the victim of it (in the short term, at least).

For the criminal there’s an obvious appeal in digital crime. The lack of physical element dramatically lowers the risk of getting caught, and the lack of deprivation for the victim means many offenders convince themselves that their crime is “victimless”.

Read more: the hack, the film, its studio and North Korea – are they related?

Recently we’ve seen the spread of this logic to include sexual offences. Last year’s spate of iCloud hackings seemed to herald a new era in sexually-motivated crime.

The demonstrable anguish suffered by the victims of iCloud hacking illustrates a key point: just because there’s no violence does not mean there’s no violation. Falling victim to cybercrime is just as upsetting (and in some cases more so) than any physical encounter.

But if cybercrime is indeed the new wave of law-breaking, we should all be worried. Firstly, reporting of these crimes is currently a haphazard affair. Reporting a hacking attack at your local police station will probably be met with consternation by the person behind the reception desk.

If you’re lucky they might be clued up enough to refer you to Action Fraud, the national reporting scheme. But it’s a system that’s deluged with complaints, with everything from state-level hacks to spam emails going into the same funnel, leaving investigators with the headache of sorting the heavyweight, organised crime from that of the unskilled chancers.

Read more: is Facebook really capable of monitoring terrorists?

And even if Action Fraud picks up the crime, in the case of the iCloud hacks, it’s arguable whether it is indeed a fraud. What money was lost? If the criminal simply perpetrated it for “fun”, can it really be classed as a fraud?

Then there’s the issue of where the crime took place. It may have affected your computer, but if the hacker attacked the computer servers of the website you were using, it’s arguable that the crime occurred wherever those servers were based.

All of these factors massively increase the chances of digital offences being classed as “no crime”, at least for UK purposes.

If that’s the case, then the growth in these types of offences is simply the tip of the iceberg, and poses serious questions for how our current law enforcement system is set up to deal with them.

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