Maintaining order in virtual communities

A new challenge facing police is where the cybercrimes are both specific to virtual environments and actually take place within them – and it poses the question: ‘Who should be policing cyberspace?’

Nov 29, 2007
By Paul Jacques

A new challenge facing police is where the cybercrimes are both specific to virtual environments and actually take place within them – and it poses the question: ‘Who should be policing cyberspace?’

When the lines blur between ‘virtual’ crime and ‘real’ crime, where does that leave police enforcement?

David Wall (University of Leeds, Law) and Matthew Williams (University of Wales System, Cardiff School of Social Sciences) recently published a report Policing Diversity in the Digital Age: Maintaining Order in Virtual Communities.

It explores the ways that online social spaces maintain orderly ‘communities’ in the face of the endemic deviance/crime problem that exits online. It contrasts ‘proximal’ (online) forms of governing online behaviour, such as online reputation management systems, ‘virtual’ police services and vigilante groups that employ ‘online shaming’, with ‘distal’ (offline) forms such as offline policing and criminal justice processes.

Online paedophilia, cyberterrorism, identity theft, online fraud, malware infections, spams, denial of service attacks, hacking and online hate crime, among others, have transformed the public’s perception of the Internet from a new social space associated with unprecedented freedoms into a ‘dangerous place’ riddled with escalating, often misunderstood, risks, states the report.

Indeed, in its findings on Personal Internet Security, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee said the Internet had embraced a `Wild West` culture.

Cybercrime

Mr Wall and Mr Williams explain that the confusion over what constitutes a cybercrime creates a ‘reassurance gap’ between crimes experienced and those felt, and leads to public concern about ‘cybercrime’, which subsequently shapes the demands made of the police (for reassurance).

Their report highlights that an effective way of identifying if an act is a cybercrime is to apply the ‘transformation test’. The report states: “Simply put, what happens to the ‘crime’ if the Internet is removed? By applying this logic, three different groups of cyber-criminal opportunity can be identified as points on a spectrum. At the one extreme are ‘traditional’ crimes that masquerade as cyber-crimes. In such cases the Internet has been utilised for communication or information gathering to facilitate an ‘offline’ crime. If the Internet is removed from the activity then the criminal behaviour persists because the offenders will revert to using other information sources or types of communication. ‘Hybrid’ cybercrimes occupy the middle ground. These are ‘traditional’ crimes for which entirely new global opportunities have emerged (e.g. globalised frauds and deceptions, also the global trade in pornographic materials including child pornography). Take away the Internet and the behaviour will continue by other means, but not by the same volume or across such a wide span. At the far end of the spectrum are the ‘true’ cybercrimes which are solely the product of opportunities created by the Internet and which can only be perpetrated within cyberspace, such as spamming. Take away the Internet and spamming and true cybercrimes vanish.”

Legislation

Along this spectrum exist other crimes and misdemeanours, such as hacking and cracking, vandalism, spying, denial of service and the planting and use of viruses and Trojans. Many countries now have legislation in place to protect against unauthorised access to, or manipulation of, computer material, such as the UK’s Computer Misuse Act 1990 (UK) and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act 1986 (USA).

“The challenge is where the cybercrimes are both specific to virtual environments and actually take place within them,” states the report.

Policing Diversity in the Digital Age: Maintaining Order in Virtual Communities, highlights that online communities are plagued by variants of cybercrimes and misdemeanours, for example in computer gaming environments where there is increasing criminal exploitation of gaming artefacts that

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