Social Impacts of Cyber Crime
Cyber criminals take full advantage of the anonymity, secrecy, and interconnectedness provided by the Internet, therefore attacking the very foundations of our modern information society. Cyber crime can involve botnets, computer viruses, cyber bullying, cyberstalking, cyberterrorism, cyberpornography, Denial of Service attacks, hacktivism, identity theft, malware, and spam. Law enforcement officials have struggled to keep pace with cyber criminals, who cost the global economy billions annually. Police are attempting to use the same tools cyber criminals use to perpetrate crimes in an effort to prevent those crimes and bring the guilty parties to justice. This essay begins by defining cyber crime and then moves to a discussion of its economic and social impacts. It continues with detailed excursions into cyberbullying and cyberpornography, two especially representative examples of cyber crime, and concludes with a discussion of ways to curtail the spread of cyber crime.
Keywords Botnet; Computer Virus; Cyber Crime; Cyberbullying; Cyberstalking; Cyberterrorism; Cyberpornography; Denial of Service Attack; Hacktivism; Identity Theft; Information Society; Internet; Malware; Spam
Social Impacts of Cyber Crime
Computer-related crime dates to the origins of computing, though the greater connectivity between computers through the Internet has brought the concept of cyber crime into the public consciousness of our information society.
In 1995, when the World Wide Web was in its early stages of development, futurist Dr. Gene Stephens wrote about the present and future reality of cyber crime and made several predictions: "Billions of dollars in losses have already been discovered. Billions more have gone undetected. Trillions will be stolen, most without detection, by the emerging master criminal of the twenty-first century—the cyberspace offender" (Stephens, 1995, p. 24).
Reflecting on his predictions in a 2008 article, Stephens noted that he and others foresaw much of the cyber crime to come:
I correctly forecast an explosion of cellular phone time theft and phone fraud; increased cyberattacks and fraud against government and business; massive credit card theft and fraud; internal theft of clients' identities by financially struggling and/or greedy financial service employees; more cyberporn, cyberstalking, cyberharassment, and cybervengeance; and the use of biometrics and encryption as methods of protecting data in cyberspace (Stephens, 2008, p. 33).
Defining Cyber Crime
Cyber crime, as distinguished from computer crime, is an umbrella term for the various crimes committed using the World Wide Web, such as:
• The theft of one's personal identity (identity theft) or financial resources;
• The spread of malicious software code such as computer viruses;
• The use of others' computers to send spam email messages (botnets);
• Denial of Service (DoS) attacks on computer networks or websites by the hacker;
• Hacktivism, or attacking the computer servers of those organizations felt by the hacker to be unsavory or ethically dubious;
• Cyberstalking, by which sexual predators use Internet chat rooms, social networking sites, and other online venues to find and harass their victims;
• Cyberbullying, where individuals are harassed by others, causing severe mental anguish;
• Cyberpornography, the use of the Internet to spread child and adult pornography;
• Internet gambling and software piracy; and
• Cyberterrorism, the use of the Internet to stage intentional, wide-spread attacks that disrupt computer networks; using the Internet to spread violent messages, recruit terrorists, and plan attacks.
Cyber crime can be divided into four sub-categories:
• Cyber-trespass (hacktivism, viruses, Denial of Service attacks)
• Cyber-deceptions (identity theft, fraud, piracy)
• Cyber-violence (cyberbullying, cyberstalking)
(based on Wall, 2001, p. 3-7, cited in Yar, 2006, p. 10).
Several of these activities have a long history that predates the Internet, and they also have technological antecedents. "Some of the nineteenth-century wire frauds perpetrated by tapping into the early electric telegraph systems, for example, bear an uncanny resemblance to modern day hacks" (Wall, 2007, p. 2).
Media reports since the 1990s have documented the many methods by which criminals have used the Internet to commit crimes. Cyberthieves have become skilled at using the anonymity and secrecy of the Internet to defraud their victims of their money, their peace of mind, and indeed even their lives. When victims let their guard down by muting a healthy skepticism and caution, cyber crime takes place. As one FBI spokeswoman noted, "The scammer tries to prey on victims who are kind of in tune with what's going on in the world. The scam changes, but ultimately they're preying on the good will of people" (quoted in Simmons, 2008).
The Scope of Cyber Crime
Law enforcement officials have struggled to identify, arrest, and prosecute these tech-savvy offenders, even as sociologists have sought to get to the root of cyber crime. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) created a special cyber division in 2002 to “address cyber crime in a coordinated and cohesive manner (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2013) with cyber squads in each of its fifty-six field offices, “cyber action teams” that travel worldwide to address cyber attacks, and nationwide computer task forces. The field of cyber crime has spawned the field of cyber criminology, defined as "the study of causation of crimes that occur in the cyberspace and its impact in the physical space" (Jaishankar, 2007, p. 1).
The scope of cyber crime remains staggering, and it continues to grow. In 2012, for instance, the US economy lost $525.5 million to cyber crime (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2013), up over 40 million from 2011 with the most common complaints in 2012 being impersonation email scams, intimidation crimes, and scams that attempted to extort money from computer users. In 2012, cyber crime cost British businesses €21 billion (Morris, 2012), and over one million computer users in the European Union were affected every day by cyber crime (EruActive, 2012).
As more and more people have used the Internet to do their shopping, communicating, banking, and bill paying, they have become targets for cyber criminals. There are common-sense steps that can prevent or reduce having one's financial information stolen online, as well as to avoid other scams and threats, but cyber crime in these areas persists largely due to a lack of consumer education.
Some varieties of cyber crime, such as hacktivism, are ostensibly motivated by noble intentions, such as protest against perceived abuses by governments and corporations. Often these attacks involve posting comments on official government websites and are not motivated by a desire for monetary gain. However, other forms of cyber crime have a much more violent intent. These include cyberstalking, cyberbullying, and cyberterrorism.
While the economic impact of cyber crime is beyond dispute, rather less attention has been given to the social implications of cyber crime. Psychologists and psychiatrists can help victims cope with the fallout from identity theft, sexual abuse, or financial ruin, whereas sociologists are well-positioned to look at the broader social impacts and explanations of cyber crime.
Cyber crime attacks the very foundations of modern, technological societies, bound up as they are with the rapid flow of computer data facilitated by the Internet. At the most basic level, cyber criminals often take advantage of technologically unsophisticated individuals who nonetheless find themselves in a world where the Internet plays an increasingly central role in both community and private life. Cyber crime depends, at this level, on the ability of those who are more technologically sophisticated to use that knowledge to trick others into surrendering vital information, such as their bank account information or Social Security number. While it is possible in some situations for the victim of cyber crime to restore stolen money or even their personal online identity, the event often leaves the victim traumatized and deeply suspicious of the Internet and other trappings of modern life. In this way the cyber criminal deprives his or her victim of many of the...
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