Role of Computers in Crime
October 28, 2016
Categorised in: Computer Forensic & Cyber Applications
Investigating a computer intrusion requires one approach, while investigating a homicide with related digital evidence requires a completely different procedure.
The specific role that a computer plays in a crime also determines how it can be used as evidence.
When a computer contains only a few pieces of digital evidence, investigators might not be authorized to collect the entire computer.
However, when a computer is the key piece of evidence in an investigation and contains a large amount of digital evidence, it is often necessary to collect the entire computer and its contents.
Additionally, when a computer plays a significant role in a crime, it is easier to obtain a warrant to search and seize the entire computer.
Several attempts have been made to develop a language, in the form of categories, to help describe the role of computers in crime.
Categories are necessarily limiting, ignoring details for the sake of providing general terms, but they can be useful provided they are used with an awareness of their limitations.
Donn Parker was one of the first individuals to perceive the development of computer-related crime as a serious problem in the 1970s and played a major role in enacting Florida’s Computer Crime Act of 1978.
He proposed the following four categories—while reading through these categories, notice the lack of reference to digital evidence.
1. A computer can be the object of a crime.
When a computer is affected by the criminal act, it is the object of the crime (e.g., when a computer is stolen or destroyed).
2. A computer can be the subject of a crime.
When a computer is the environment in which the crime is committed, it is the subject of the crime (e.g., when a computer is infected by a virus or impaired in some other way to inconvenience the individuals who use it).
3. The computer can be used as the tool for conducting or planning a crime.
For example, when a computer is used to forge documents or break into other computers, it is the instrument of the crime.
4. The symbol of the computer itself can be used to intimidate or deceive.
An example given is of a stockbroker who told his clients that he was able to make huge profits on rapid stock option trading by using a secret computer program in a giant computer in a Wall Street brokerage firm. Although he had no such programs or access to the computer in question, hundreds of clients were convinced enough to invest a minimum of $100,000 each.
The distinction between a computer as the object and subject of a crime is useful from a investigative standpoint because it relates to the intent of the offender.
For the purposes of this text, a target is defined as the object of an attack from the offender’s point of view, and may include computers or information they contain.
The intended victim is the term for the person, group, or institution that was meant to suffer loss or harm.
The intended victim and the target may be one and the same.
There may also be more than one intended victim.
Because of the closely linked nature of computer networks, there may also be collateral victims.
This term refers to victims that an offender causes to suffer loss or harm in the pursuit of another victim (usually because of proximity).
When an arsonist burns down a building to victimize an individual or a group, innocent individuals can get hurt.
Similarly, when an intruder destroys a computer system to victimize an individual or a group, unconnected individuals can lose data.
Considering the computer as a tool that was used to plan or commit a crime is also useful.
If a computer is used like a weapon in a criminal act, much like a gun or a knife, this could lead to additional charges or a heightened degree of punishment.
As stated, the symbolic aspect of computers may seem irrelevant because no actual computers are involved and, therefore, none can be collected as evidence.
The symbolic aspect of computers comes up more frequently when they are the targets of an attack and can be useful for understanding an offender’s motivations.
In this context, a symbol is any person or thing that represents an idea, a belief, a group, or even another person.
For example, computers can symbolize authority to a particular offender, an organization can symbolize failure to an ex-employee, and a CEO can symbolize an organization.
Therefore, a computer, organization, or individual may become a victim or target because of what it symbolizes.
Identifying the targets, intended victims, collateral victims, and symbols of a crime is one of the issues that an investigation is intended to resolve.
The most significant omission in Parker’s categories is computers as sources of digital evidence.
In many cases, computers did not play a role in crimes, but they contained evidence that proves that a crime occurred.
The three categories that refer to information all fall under the guise of digital evidence:
1. Hardware as Contraband or Fruits of Crime.
2. Hardware as an Instrumentality.
3. Hardware as Evidence.
4. Information as Contraband or Fruits of Crime.
5. Information as an Instrumentality.
6. Information as Evidence.
These categories are not intended to be mutually exclusive. A single crime can fall into more than one category.
Pratik Kataria is a budding programmer, web designer and developer.