These days, it's rare to open a news source (print or digital) without finding a story about cybercrime. Cybercriminals are hacking into databases, stealing credit and debit card account numbers, compromising individuals' identities, and shutting down legitimate websites. These articles highlight how necessary cyber law enforcement has become.Although data security budgets keep climbing and computer users are increasingly aware of security protocols, cybercrimes remain on the rise. Local police forces seem unable to get a handle on this type of crime or criminal, and even the most advanced national and international crime-fighting organizations lack sufficient resources to keep cybercrime under control.
For example, the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) alone received some 290,000 complaints about cybercrimes in 2012, estimated to involve more than $545 million worth of losses. But according to the FBI, these numbers may reflect only 10 percent of the world's actual cybercrime activity.
A recently published report from the Police Executive Research Forum highlights the tactics, attitudes, and effectiveness of about 230 law enforcement agencies. Taken together, it's not a picture that inspires confidence. According to the report, "local and state governments must recognize that the crime-fighting successes of these past 50 years are not preparing us for the new crimes of this millennium."
Just like everything else in the modern world, traditional crimes—from robberies to tax fraud, from sex and drug trafficking to extortion and embezzlement—have been moving into the online world. As a result, uncounted millions of people around the nation and around the world have already been subject to delays, inconveniences, and financial losses resulting from cybercriminal activity.
In fact, cybercrime is so rampant that police agencies are forced to focus almost entirely on the relatively few "high-loss" cases, or instances where a number of relatively small crimes show a pattern that may point to a big-time ringleader or mastermind.
Single-instance crimes like forged concert or game tickets and petty thefts are generally left for local police to investigate. As a result, local gangs and small-time crooks are now finding that online illegal opportunities often pay better and entail less risk of prosecution and punishment than conventional street crime.
Currently, law enforcement experts divide cybercrimes into three categories:
- Crimes where a computer is the target. This includes hacking, cracking, malicious code, vandalism, and denial of service attacks.
- Crimes where a computer is the primary tool. This includes fraud, theft, extortion, stalking, forgery, and child pornography.
- Crimes where a computer is involved, but not central to the crime. This includes use of a computer to write blackmail letters, to store records of drug deals, to research methods of making bombs, to communicate with criminal partners, and so forth.
A big difference between cybercrime and street crime is reimbursement. If a thug takes your wallet, you nearly always bear the loss by yourself. But if the same thug goes online and grabs your credit card number, your bank generally shields you from the theft. As a result, people are sometimes less motivated than they might otherwise be to secure and defend their online activities.
Other differences are also important. For example, most "real-world" crime puts the criminal in physical proximity to the victim and takes place on a relatively limited scale. For example, a criminal must enter a bank to rob it and can probably rob only one or two banks a day. Patterns like these helped shape law enforcement toward a "reactive" model where little or nothing happens until a crime is committed. At that point, police begin their investigation.
In cybercrime, however, there is no need for proximity. This creates problems of jurisdiction and also requires significantly more resources for law enforcement. Cybercrimes also scale quite easily. A single hacker can attack hundreds of thousands of computers all over the world. As a result, a major cybercrime spree can take place before authorities ever notice, and the criminal can disappear before law enforcement can even assign personnel to the case.
One increasingly common response to this situation by local police forces is to "train up" their sworn personnel so that they become better educated about how to combat online crime. For example, the LA County Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Police Department recently sent several dozen detectives to a new computer science program offered by the University of Southern California.
But this appears to be the exception rather than the rule. It remains to be seen whether cyber law enforcement personnel will ever patrol cyberspace as assiduously as traditional law enforcement individuals presently patrol offline jewelry and financial districts.