The Arduous Task of Investigating CyberCrime

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Experts have estimated that cybercrime costs more than $400 billion annually, representing a share of about one half of 1% of Earth’s entire estimated GDP. Of course, cybercrime cannot be measured in its sheer economic impact alone: Like other forms of crime, it also has profound effects on the health, safety, and psychological well-being of individuals. The advent of “cyber-stalking” and online bullying contribute to the general sense that the online world is now a locus of antisocial activity that law enforcement agencies must remain aware of.

Investigating CyberCrime

Depending on their scope and sophistication, cybercrimes are often investigated by federal law enforcement agencies. However, the nature of today’s cybercrimes is highly granular, and there is a growing need for local law enforcement to develop the skills and perspectives to successfully investigate all forms of cybercrime. Police precincts nationwide face major challenges in dealing with cybercrime, suggesting the need for comprehensive structural transformation.

Some of the major issues involved in stopping cyber criminals include:

Long-Distance Attacks

Modern cybercrime represents a form of “location-independent crime” that is virtually unique in the history of law enforcement. Although it has long been possible to perpetuate wire fraud and other crimes across significant distances, the nature of traditional communication infrastructure made it relatively easy to identify perpetrators. Today’s cybercrimes are much more difficult to detect, as they can take place on computers that are multiple time zones away from their victims. Likewise, cybercrime can be automated in a way that conventional crime cannot. All of these factors tax investigative resources.

Difficulty Acquiring the Full Spectrum of Information

Cybercriminals are notoriously elusive thanks to the ephemeral nature of evidence in cybercrime cases. In order to develop a complete picture of when, how, and why a cybercrime unfolded, it is necessary to perform forensic data analysis not only on the affected networks and systems, but also on the hardware used by the criminals themselves. Limited time and resources mean that it is difficult to capture, let alone integrate, high-level “lessons learned” that might be valuable in identifying patterns of cybercrime in the future.

Failure to Report Cybercrime to Authorities

Businesses, not individuals, are typically understood as the most tempting targets for cybercrime. Although some cybercrimes are motivated by a desire to “prove skills,” the vast majority of them have clear financial incentives. Unfortunately, most commercial enterprises are loath to share information about cybercrimes with the authorities. Feeling that public admission of a network security breach threatens their reputation with consumers, they often focus on retaining private consultancies that offer specialized skills but no true investigative authority.

Cybercrime as a Priority

A recent survey revealed significant issues in making cybercrime a law enforcement priority. While 42% of responding agencies did report having a cybercrime unit, 54% indicated that their investigations were impacted by a lack of staffing resources. Further, 31% cited a lack of overall funding, while 29% indicated issues addressing a lack of in-house expertise. Indeed, 63% of all responding cybercrime units used some degree of outsourced training for their personal, although 96% did provide some degree of specialized training on an “in-house” basis as well.

Scale of Cybercrime Activity

By most accounts, cybercrime is growing significantly as technology advances. Although specific measures are difficult to execute, cybercrime likely accounts for millions of different acts each year. Although the most visible forms of cybercrime fit the profile of attacks on commercial interests driven by financial motivation, cybercrime is also extremely diverse, making it harder to fit into conventional models and measures of crime. Likewise, non-criminal forms of antisocial online behavior can exacerbate or evolve into criminal activity.

Jurisdictional Limitations in Investigating and Prosecuting Cybercrime

It is not unusual for cybercrime to involve three local jurisdictions, to say nothing of those at the state or national levels: The jurisdiction of the perpetrator, the jurisdiction of the victim, and the jurisdiction of the Internet service provider or other network resources co-opted to facilitate the crime. Some cybercrimes are so complex that dozens of jurisdictions may be involved, invoking hundreds of law enforcement agencies – for example, cases where unsuspecting third parties had their computer hardware infected by viruses that then facilitated the crime.

The Future of Effective Cybercrime Investigation and Prosecution

Some issues in cybercrime cases, such as the involvement of foreign jurisdictions, can only be addressed through high-level international cooperation. However, law enforcement agencies are not in a position to wait for these outcomes. Local, state, and federal agencies must develop new approaches to collaboration so the right resources can be activated to find cybercriminals and bring them to justice. Luckily, there are several emerging practices that show some promise.

The USA Patriot Act enacted in 2001 provided for the development of Electronic Crime Task Forces to deal with the emerging problems around cybercrime. These forces provide for effective coordination between law enforcement resources at the local, state, and federal level. Likewise, they define and facilitate partnerships between the justice system and private enterprises with specialized expertise critical to managing cybercrime.

Partnering, coordination, and teamwork must be synthesized with the development of repeatable “best practices” in cybercrime investigation. This will require agencies at multiple levels to build their capabilities in computer forensics. It will also require hiring strategies that take into account the level of technical expertise and skill demonstrated by individual law enforcement personnel. Agencies must be open to learning from private sector experts and utilizing their expertise in the development of appropriate credentials that represent a commitment to cybercrime investigation.

Cybercrime stands to be an enduring problem in the 21st century and beyond. To strengthen and protect communities in the face of its emerging threats, law enforcement agencies must embrace new ideas in procedures, personnel, and technology.

Today’s criminologists have a role to play in ensuring apt models of cybercrime emerge and proliferate, helping agencies more effectively anticipate and respond to its unique complexities. Modern criminologists also play an important part in securing and informing our present and future. So no matter whether it is investigating a cyber attack or offering the latest tips for protecting computers or severs, criminology is leading the way for a safer and smarter future.

If you are interested in cybercrime, consider joining the University of Cincinnati Online Master of Science in Criminal Justice program, which the U.S. News & World Report recently named the #3 Criminology School in the nation. Complete in as little as one year. No GRE required. Find out more today!