“Between the risk and the reality falls the shadow”: evidence and urban legends in computer fraud
The definition, harmfulness, incidence and prevalence of computer-related crime continue to be controversial. Just as the very different behaviours classified as crimes are transmogrified into the collective noun “crime”, almost the only thing that cybercrimes have in common is a claim to be about an activity that is late or postmodern. Sceptics traditionally argue that much of what is described as computer crime is crime that would not have been significantly harder had computers never been invented; but although, as I shall argue, that may be true of conceptual categories such as trespass, theft, obscenity and violence (Wall, 1998: 203, also see chapter 1), it is undoubtedly true that computers – and especially the Internet – democratize criminal opportunities by opening up the possibility of virtual access to sites such as financial and defence systems that would not be available physically to many offenders. (For excellent introductions to part of this aspect, see Mann and Sutton, 1998; Wall, 2000.) Even if we were to agree on a definition of the phenomenon, given nonreporting and – even when reported – the difficulty of fitting the crime to existing legal categories, our understanding of when and where “it” occurs is very limited. Wall (1998: 203) goes so far as to assert that “it is…too early even to attempt an assessment of the extent of cybervictimisation, indeed, there are many good reasons as to why this might never be possible.” Whilst I agree that this is so in the round, this paper sketches out some brief perspectives on the emergence of computer fraud as a social issue and then goes on to examine what surveys to date tell us about its incidence and prevalence. I will not examine what the legal implications of this are, because there is no reason why the legal framework of fraud and attempted fraud should not cope adequately (or any more inadequately than it does in other areas of fraud), though proving that computers were reliable or not on a given date may be harder than less technological forms of evidence.