An Analysis of Computer Crime Law
Over the last twenty years, a technological revolution has
occurred as computers are now an essential element of
today's society. Large computers are used to track
reservations for the airline industry, process billions of
dollars for banks, manufacture products for industry, and
conduct major transactions for businesses because more and
more people now have computers at home and at the office.
People commit computer crimes because of society's
declining ethical standards more than any economic need.
According to experts, gender is the only bias. The profile
of today's non-professional thieves crosses all races, age
groups and economic strata. Computer criminals tend to be
relatively honest and in a position of trust: few would do
anything to harm another human, and most do not consider
their crime to be truly dishonest. Most are males: women
have tended to be accomplices, though of late they are
becoming more aggressive. Computer Criminals tend to
usually be "between the ages of 14-30, they are usually
bright, eager, highly motivated, adventuresome, and willing
to accept technical challenges."(Shannon, 16:2)
"It is tempting to liken computer criminals to other
criminals, ascribing characteristics somehow different from
'normal' individuals, but that is not the case."(Sharp,
18:3) It is believed that the computer criminal "often
marches to the same drum as the potential victim but
follows and unanticipated path."(Blumenthal, 1:2) There is
no actual profile of a computer criminal because they range
from young teens to elders, from black to white, from short
Definitions of computer crime has changed over the years as
the users and misusers of computers have expanded into new
areas. "When computers were first introduced into
businesses, computer crime was defined simply as a form of
white-collar crime committed inside a computer
Some new terms have been added to the computer criminal
vocabulary. "Trojan Horse is a hidden code put into a
computer program. Logic bombs are implanted so that the
perpetrator doesn't have to physically present himself or
herself." (Phrack 12,p.43) Another form of a hidden code is
"salamis." It came from the big salami loaves sold in delis
years ago. Often people would take small portions of bites
that were taken out of them and then they were secretly
returned to the shelves in the hopes that no one would
notice them missing.(Phrack 12,p.44)
Congress has been reacting to the outbreak of computer
crimes. "The U.S. House of Judiciary Committee approved a
bipartisan computer crime bill that was expanded to make it
a federal crime to hack into credit and other data bases
protected by federal privacy statutes."(Markoff, B 13:1)
This bill is generally creating several categories of
federal misdemeanor felonies for unauthorized access to
computers to obtain money, goods or services or classified
This also applies to computers used by the federal
government or used in interstate of foreign commerce which
would cover any system accessed by interstate
"Computer crime often requires more sophistications than
people realize it."(Sullivan, 40:4) Many U.S. businesses
have ended up in bankruptcy court unaware that they have
been victimized by disgruntled employees. American
businesses wishes that the computer security nightmare
would vanish like a fairy tale. Information processing has
grown into a gigantic industry. "It accounted for $33
billion in services in 1983, and in 1988 it was accounted
to be $88 billion." (Blumenthal, B 1:2)
All this information is vulnerable to greedy employees,
nosy-teenagers and general carelessness, yet no one knows
whether the sea of computer crimes is "only as big as the
Gulf of Mexico or as huge as the North Atlantic."
(Blumenthal,B 1:2) Vulnerability is likely to increase in
the future. And by the turn of the century, "nearly all of
the software to run computers will be bought from vendors
rather than developed in houses, standardized software will
make theft easier." (Carley, A 1:1)
A two-year secret service investigation code-named
Operation Sun-Devil, targeted companies all over the United
States and led to numerous seizures. Critics of Operation
Sun-Devil claim that the Secret Service and the FBI, which
have almost a similar operation, have conducted
unreasonable search and seizures, they disrupted the lives
and livelihoods of many people, and generally conducted
themselves in an unconstitutional manner. "My whole life
changed because of that operation. They charged me and I
had to take them to court. I have to thank 2600 and
Emmanuel Goldstein for publishing my story. I owe a lot to
the fellow hackers and fellow hackers and the Electronic
Frontier Foundation for coming up with the blunt of the
legal fees so we could fight for our rights." (Interview
with Steve Jackson, fellow hacker, who was charged in
operation Sun Devil) The case of Steve Jackson Games vs.
Secret Service has yet to come to a verdict yet but should
very soon. The secret service seized all of Steve Jackson's
computer materials which he made a living on. They charged
that he made games that published information on how to
commit computer crimes. He was being charged with running a
underground hack system. "I told them it was only a game
and that I was angry and that was the way that I tell a
story. I never thought Hacker [Steve Jackson's game] would
cause such a problem. My biggest problem was that they
seized the BBS (Bulletin Board System) and because of that
I had to make drastic cuts, so we laid of eight people out
of 18. If the Secret Service had just come with a subpoena
we could have showed or copied every file in the building
for them."(Steve Jackson Interview)
Computer professionals are grappling not only with issues
of free speech and civil liberties, but also with how to
educate the public and the media to the difference between
on-line computer experimenters. They also point out that,
while the computer networks and the results are a new kind
of crime, they are protected by the same laws and freedom
of any real world domain.
"A 14-year old boy connects his home computer to a
television line, and taps into the computer at his
neighborhood bank and regularly transfers money into his
personnel account."(2600:Spring 93,p.19) On paper and on
screens a popular new mythology is growing quickly in which
computer criminals are the 'Butch Cassidys' of the
electronic age. "These true tales of computer capers are
far from being futuristic fantasies."(2600:Spring 93:p.19)
They are inspired by scores of real life cases. Computer
crimes are not just crimes against the computer, but it is
also against the theft of money, information, software,
benefits and welfare and many more.
"With the average damage from a computer crime amounting to
about $.5 million, sophisticated computer crimes can rock
the industry."(Phrack 25,p.6) Computer crimes can take on
many forms. Swindling or stealing of money is one of the
most common computer crime. An example of this kind of
crime is the Well Fargo Bank that discovered an employee
was using the banks computer to embezzle $21.3 million, it
is the largest U.S. electronic bank fraud on record.
Credit Card scams are also a type of computer crime. This
is one that fears many people and for good reasons. A
fellow computer hacker that goes by the handle of Raven is
someone who uses his computer to access credit data bases.
In a talk that I had with him he tried to explain what he
did and how he did it. He is a very intelligent person
because he gained illegal access to a credit data base and
obtained the credit history of local residents. He then
allegedly uses the residents names and credit information
to apply for 24 Mastercards and Visa cards. He used the
cards to issue himself at least 40,000 in cash from a
number of automatic teller machines. He was caught once but
was only withdrawing $200 and in was a minor larceny and
they couldn't prove that he was the one who did the other
ones so he was put on probation. "I was 17 and I needed
money and the people in the underground taught me many
things. I would not go back and not do what I did but I
would try not to get caught next time. I am the leader of
HTH (High Tech Hoods) and we are currently devising other
ways to make money. If it weren't for my computer my life
would be nothing like it is today."(Interview w/Raven)
"Finally, one of the thefts involving the computer is the
theft of computer time. Most of us don't realize this as a
crime, but the congress consider this as a
crime."(Ball,V85) Everyday people are urged to use the
computer but sometimes the use becomes excessive or
improper or both. For example, at most colleges computer
time is thought of as free-good students and faculty often
computerizes mailing lists for their churches or fraternity
organizations which might be written off as good public
relations. But, use of the computers for private consulting
projects without payment of the university is clearly
In business it is the similar. Management often looks the
other way when employees play computer games or generate a
Snoopy calendar. But, if this becomes excessive the
employees is stealing work time. And computers can only
process only so many tasks at once. Although considered
less severe than other computer crimes such activities can
represent a major business loss.
"While most attention is currently being given to the
criminal aspects of computer abuses, it is likely that
civil action will have an equally important effect on long
term security problems."(Alexander, V119) The issue of
computer crimes draw attention to the civil or liability
aspects in computing environments. In the future there may
tend to be more individual and class action suits.
Computer crimes are fast and growing because the evolution
of technology is fast, but the evolution of law is slow.
While a variety of states have passed legislation relating
to computer crime, the situation is a national problem that
requires a national solution. Controls can be instituted
within industries to prevent such crimes. Protection
measures such as hardware identification, access controls
software and disconnecting critical bank applications
should be devised.
However, computers don't commit crimes; people do. The
perpetrator's best advantage is ignorance on the part of
those protecting the system. Proper internal controls
reduce the opportunity for fraud.
Alexander, Charles, "Crackdown on Computer Capers,"
Time, Feb. 8, 1982, V119.
Ball, Leslie D., "Computer Crime," Technology Review,
April 1982, V85.
Blumenthal,R. "Going Undercover in the Computer
Underworld". New York Times, Jan. 26, 1993, B, 1:2.
Carley, W. "As Computers Flip, People Lose Grip in Saga of
Sabatoge at Printing Firm". Wall Street Journal, Aug. 27,
1992, A, 1:1.
Carley, W. "In-House Hackers: Rigging Computers for Fraud
or Malice Is Often an Inside Job".
Wall Street Journal, Aug 27, 1992, A, 7:5.
Markoff, J. "Hackers Indicted on Spy Charges". New York
Times, Dec. 8, 1992, B, 13:1.
Finn, Nancy and Peter, "Don't Rely on the Law to Stop
Computer Crime," Computer World, Dec. 19, 1984, V18.
Phrack Magazine issues 1-46. Compiled by Knight Lightning
and Phiber Optik.
Shannon, L R. "THe Happy Hacker". New York Times, Mar. 21,
1993, 7, 16:2.
Sharp, B. "The Hacker Crackdown". New York Times, Dec. 20,
1992, 7, 18:3.
Sullivan, D. "U.S. Charges Young Hackers". New York Times,
Nov. 15, 1992, 1, 40:4.
2600: The Hacker Quarterly. Issues Summer 92-Spring 93.
Compiled by Emmanuel Goldstein.