by David S. Wall. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007. 288pp. Hardback. £55.00/$69.95. ISBN: 9780745627359. Paper. £17.99/$26.95. ISBN: 9780745627366.
Reviewed by David O. Friedrichs, Department of Sociology/Criminal Justice, University of Scranton. Email: friedrichsd1 [at] scranton.edu.
All of us learned about the industrial revolution during the course of our secondary school education. Will the “computer revolution” of the current era be regarded at some future time as a transformative historical event on the same scale as the industrial revolution? While it may still be too early to give a definitive answer to this question, we can certainly say that computer technology – and the internet as one conspicuous manifestation of this technology – has had a dramatic impact on many aspects of contemporary social existence. The book under review addresses one significant dimension of the computer revolution: the emergence of a wide range of crimes and harmful activities now carried out over the internet, and increasingly only made possible as a consequence of the existence of the internet, as well as the new and formidable challenges involved in controlling such crime.
David Wall, the author of CYBERCRIME, is a professor of criminal justice at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. He has published quite extensively over the past ten years or so on various dimensions of cybercrime and its control, including a 2001 book, CRIME AND THE INTERNET. Of course there are others who have engaged with this topic – notably Peter Grabosky of the Australian National University, most recently in ELECTRONIC CRIME (2007) – but due to its novelty the literature on cybercrime is still pretty much in its infancy. The present book is best described as a rather comprehensive survey of what is presently known about cybercrime and its control. In this realm the term “presently” has to be emphasized in light of the exceptionally dynamic character of such crime, and the almost dizzying challenge of coming up with novel responses to each new technological break-through on the part of those engaged in cybercrime. The book is intended as a text for advanced undergraduate and graduate students in criminology and criminal justice in particular, but is also intended to be useful to a broad academic and professional audience interested in cybercrime issues from some vantage point. It is written in a style and format; however, that may render it more appealing to an academic than to a professional audience. The term “cybercrime” itself encompasses not only crimes in a legal sense that are carried out in cyberspace – the realm of networked computer activity – but more broadly actions in that space that are deemed harmful (or simply irritating) in some way. At the outset of the book, Wall introduces his “transformation thesis,” that networked technologies have transformed the character of criminal activity and opened up broad [*506] new opportunities for such activity. Following the influential law professor Lawrence Lessig, Wall adopts a “digital realist” perspective that seeks to contextualize cybercrime. Perhaps inevitably, he also applies an interdisciplinary approach to this complex and multi-faceted topic.
The complexity of cybercrime begins with the multiple competing discourses that are invoked in relation to it, and which Wall attempts to sort out. The specific “media construction” of cybercrime merits some attention here, as well as the exceptionally problematic efforts to generate meaningful statistics relating to such crime. Wall notes the range of both individual and corporate disincentives to report instances of cybercrime, which in turn limits the criminal justice system response. The inclusion of questions relevant to cybercrime on large-scale crime victimization surveys (in both the United States and the United Kingdom) is a very recent development. Accordingly, many different types of claims relating to cybercrime are open to challenge, and the on-going power struggle for control over cyberspace informs the complex mix of responses to such crime. Prosecutors who attempt to address allegations of wrong-doing in this realm confront exceptional challenges, with the lines between potential criminal and civil wrong-doing especially blurred.
David Wall distinguishes between first generation cybercrime – the use of computers for criminal activity – second generation cybercrime – crimes across networks – and an emerging third generation of cybercrime – crimes that are automated and wholly mediated by internet technology. This typological distinction is arguably useful, if somewhat abstract. Wall then proceeds to delineate the range of offenses that are carried out on the internet. “Phishing” – fraudulently obtaining personal information online – and its automated version, “pharming,” is one form of cybercrime that has received considerable attention recently. Altogether, many different frauds are perpetrated in cyberspace, including deceptive ads, investment schemes, phony auctions, “credit repair, and the like. The “Nigerian” advanced fee frauds – email solicitations claiming that the recipient can receive a high percentage of a large sum of money that is miraculously available – are surely familiar to all readers of this review. Intellectual property piracy in various forms is widespread. Wall also addresses what he characterizes as “computer content” crime, notably pornography and violence on the web. The internet has given rise to cyber-stalking, and has facilitated a sexual focus on children. The perceived “anonymity” of victim-offender relationships is a distinctive feature of this and all other forms of cybercrime.
Wall addresses at some length a form of activity carried out over the internet that impacts measurably on all of us who use email, “spam” as it is commonly labeled. In some jurisdictions sending out spam is itself a criminal offense. It is all too often a means of committing criminal offenses (and spammers themselves, we are informed, may be victimized by those who sell fraudulent spam lists!). These mass email solicitations are at the least a significant source of annoyance and irritation for internet users, and at worse are wholly disruptive to legitimate use of the internet. In light of the monumental volume of spam, it is rather striking that the actual size of the perpetrator class appears to be quite [*507] small. Disturbingly, increasingly sophisticated ways to ensnare victims are on the rise with spam, which is ever less reliant upon direct human activation, and fears are intensifying of the exponential growth of spam-based infections cutting across different operating systems. Organized crime entities are now becoming involved with spam.
The final three chapters focus upon the immense challenges of effectively controlling cybercrime, broadly defined. The fact that the scope of individual victimization is often quite modest, although in bulk is very great; that it is under-reported, and non-routine; that law in this realm is still very unsettled, filled with gaps; and that its inter-jurisdictional nature allows for “forum shopping” by those being pursued, are among these challenges. As cybercrime comes to be increasingly driven by technology it seems likely that the policing of such crime will also be increasingly technological, by computer “code” as opposed to law. The traditional police are not organized (or trained) to address this type of crime effectively, and to date play a small role in responding to it. Although cyberspace is not the wholly lawless and disordered world it is sometimes made out to be, control in cyberspace is mediated by a complex of different forces. Some preventive strategies directed at online fraud, such as centralized payment systems, are at least somewhat effective. But altogether the fundamental conundrum arising here is how to devise mechanisms of prevention and control that are effective but do not compromise the whole range of productive transmissions on the internet. Accordingly, Wall concludes that the cybercrime issue will increasingly compel us to rethink such core concepts as “security” and “privacy.” Solutions to the cybercrime problem cannot be generated by technology alone, but require a complex consideration and balancing out of legal, social and economic dimensions. In an abrupt conclusion to this book Wall wonders whether the call for a more transparent internet will set the stage for 21st century witch hunts. His own “digital realism” requires sophisticated, multi-dimensional responses to cybercrime.
How useful is this book for the primary readership of this online journal? Although the author touches upon the political construction of law in relation to cybercrime, and the socio-legal context within which cybercrime operates, this is not the principal focus of his book. But certainly the book provides those who might want to explore more fully the political, jurisprudential and socio-legal dimensions of such crime with a useful mapping of the terrain, major emerging trends, key issues, and the specific vocabulary invoked. As a reader not naturally enamored with “high tech” – indeed, as someone more in the “technophobe” camp – I cannot claim to have experienced this book as an especially enjoyable or engaging reading experience, but it is indisputably quite useful and informative.
Grabosky, Peter. 2007. ELECTRONIC CRIME. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Wall, David S. 2001. CRIME AND THE INTERNET. London: Routledge.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, David O. Friedrichs.