9.5 Technocrime

High-technology devices and processes do not just generate new forms of old legal questions, however. Along with their enormous potential to benefit society, they have a similar potential for harm, and some have already found extensive employment in the service of crime. These uses can be divided into three broad categories, and there are some possible future uses in other criminal activities.

Technology as an Auxiliary to Conventional Crime

Conventional crime can be big business even when it is organized over a single city, but much more so when this is done on a regional or national basis. Drug dealers, illegal gamblers, prostitution rings, protection racketeers and smugglers are like any other business people when it comes to the need for efficient record keeping. They use computers to keep track of their traditional enterprises and improve their bottom line.

If the illegal operation is espionage, the computer may be the means of storing large quantities of stolen information. It may simply be used to store names and phone numbers of easy marks--including passwords of unprotected computer databases. Some criminal enterprises buy legitimate businesses and use computers in entirely conventional ways; others keep records of a less savoury kind. So long as there are laws, there will be those who find profit in flouting the law; and criminal organizations have certainly adapted high technology in much the same way as do others.

Technology as the Target of Crime

At the same time, the value of expensive hardware, software, or technical devices does not get overlooked by criminals. As objects of value, they become worth stealing for re-sale--one more category of hot goods for police forces to track down. They may, in the technology they represent or in the information they contain, also be targets of espionage. From integrated circuit chips to microcomputer designs, to finished mainframe computers--all are candidates to be stolen and shipped to countries that the nation of manufacture regards as enemies, or to a competing company in the same country. The same is true of space, medical, broadcast, and military technologies. It is also true of information filed in data banks of corporate and government files and bank accounts. These latter have spawned numerous new approaches to old crimes and a few new ones as well. Technical devices are broken into, vandalized, stolen, or tampered with because there is a potential for gain or satisfaction in the criminal act. In this they are no different from low technology objects of crime such as cash or jewellery or from those of older technologies (TV's, stereos, and cameras) for all of which there exist lively black markets. In short, while it is military technology and bank deposits whose theft may generate the most publicity, anything that is perceived to have value is bound to become a target for theft. There is a broad spectrum of possible responses to such activities, ranging from attempts to improve security on the one hand to the placing of information in the public domain where anyone can have it, and being little concerned about its fate and use on the other.

Clearly, the same response is not always appropriate; while it may be consistent with the general thrust of the next age to make most data public, access to the banking, government files, and military hardware will not likely ever be in this category, and so there will always be thieves, and there will always be police.

High Technology as the Instrument of Crime

Where the computer differs from other targets of criminal activity, however, is in its potential to be a powerful instrument for crime in its own right. Thus, computers are used to attempt illegal entry of data systems belonging to banks, schools, corporations and governments--either for curiosity or vandalism. In a day of careful outside audits, it gets harder all the time to embezzle money from a financial institution. This does not stop those who understand accounting procedures well enough to try and turn them against their victims. For example, utility programs intended to correct errors can be used instead to transfer money from one account to another. If the account robbed is dormant, and the total deposits continue to balance, such schemes may take some time to uncover. Other thefts have been made by clever programmers who instruct the system to round down all partial cents on interest payments and place the fractional excess in their own accounts. Given enough accounts and sufficient time, very large sums can be stolen with little risk. Yet another scheme is a variation on an age-old flimflam. The thief sets up a dummy company and generates payables from the organization being victimized to the fictitious supplier of goods or services. These appear on the record to be ordinary invoices for routine activities, but no goods are ever delivered or received; only cheques go out.

False records inserted into a database via a remote computer can create or destroy damaging information. Stock market manipulation can be attempted by carefully synchronizing buy and sell orders utilizing computers. They may be also used to fraudulently transfer equities among interlocking companies to disguise irregularities or to create an appearance of prosperity for the auditors of annual reports. False information can allow the dead to collect government paychecks, goods never ordered or delivered to be paid for, and audit trails to vanish. The larger the organization, and the more insiders it has with special knowledge, the easier it is to steal from it using a computer. The state is itself the most obvious target of such activities, and its agencies must now take elaborate steps to prevent becoming large-scale victims. It is also the largest employer, and so is the most vulnerable to abuse by insiders. The situation is complicated by five additional factors that apply to crimes committed using computer technology.

First, such crimes are widely regarded as "victimless" because they are not directed against a specific person in such a way as to cause bodily harm. There is a general perception that holding up a bank with a gun and fleeing with $2000 is a worse crime than embezzling $200 000 from the same institution, despite the fact that the latter crime also involves a breach of trust. Both are regarded as lesser still than mugging an elderly lady in the park for the $23.57 in her purse. This puts a high monetary price tag on the nonviolent nature of the crime, which may be a good thing in a violent society. However, it illustrates the difficulty in weighing the relative evils of different kinds of thefts. The large sums involved may also make restitution impossible, and this, too, narrows the courts' choices.

Second, the argument is sometimes advanced that the institutions embezzled from have lots of money and can afford to lose some. It is not clear that this argument is relevant in deciding on the degree of wrongness in the theft, or even on the punishment that ought to be meted out.

Third, technological crimes are usually committed by white collar workers with no previous criminal record. The judge and jury tend not to make a connection between office tower criminal activity and that perpetrated on the streets of the slums below. These first three factors together generate another complication.

Fourth, despite the fact that crimes involving the use of high technology such as computers are on average far more costly in dollar terms to the victim than are "blue collar" crimes of violence, the sentencing tends to be lenient. There is less a sense that the person convicted is guilty of anything serious, and the punishment does not provide much disincentive, especially if a three-year prison term can be followed by the enjoyment of the fruits of the crime. This is further exacerbated by the general crowding of prisons in North America and the high cost of incarceration, which make it even more unattractive to imprison those guilty of economic (rather than violent) crimes.

Fifth, crimes committed with high technology, such as computing devices, may not even be properly understood by the courts, nor may their consequences be appreciated, because of the rate at which technology is changing, and the difficulty that the law has in keeping up to the new situations.

These difficulties are likely to increase with further research on genetics, intelligence, and computing machinery. The possibility may already exist for genetically engineered life forms to be used to commit crimes or to pursue wars. Sensitive banking or military installations will have to be protected against infiltration not only by personal or electronic thieves, but against biological and chemical ones as well. After all, if the people or the electronics of such an operation could be temporarily incapacitated by the agent, it would become easy prey for a more conventional break-and-enter.

Artificial intelligence research could also have its products turned to criminal activity, for great intelligence, so misdirected, has always been capable of correspondingly great mischief. Such devices, should they be devised, could well become the de facto directors of criminal organizations or tyrannical governments as well as of more beneficial organizations such as hospitals, and the courts themselves. They may become both the agents and also the targets of attempts at corruption, simply because of the high stakes involved in such controlling activities.

Even the highly personalized PIEA could become a target for thieves. The owner who stores plans, outlines, new ideas and methods on the PIEA could see it stolen by someone with an interest in marketing the ideas. An artist, poet, or writer who created a new work with another person's PIEA could produce a new kind of collaboration--it might well be possible for an expert to trace the activity of the owner of the PIEA and to have charges laid for a new kind of theft of intellectual property. Perhaps these devices will have to be built to work only with the mind of the person that first "imprints" them, and not with any other. On the other hand, perhaps the notion of ownership of ideas will become obsolete, no longer protected by the law.

Some kinds of technocrime are already becoming a thing of the past. Large computing systems are usually protected against hackers by call-back modems that only allow a user to access the system from pre-specified phone numbers. Moreover, organizations are becoming more security conscious and more often use appropriate account password protection and data compartmentalizing to prevent unauthorized access and to reduce the consequences when it does take place. So, although technology may introduce new openings for criminal activity, the use of such technology does not mean that the crime cannot be prevented; it may simply mean that potential victims must take greater care to protect themselves. As indicated in the next section, it also means that the state and the legal system will have to adapt to the use of the new technologies as well.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises