Law Library: Cyber Crime
Authored by LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor, , Attorney at Law

Law Library: Cyber Crime

Cyber crime is the act of committing criminal activities by using or involving computers or computer networks. The problem of cyber crime has existed since the 1960s, and originally it took the form of sabotage and the physical destruction of computers or data. Over time, however, the use of weapons against computers has declined in significance in favor of using computers themselves as forms of weapons. Modern cyber crime consists almost entirely of using computers as a tool to commit other crimes. Examples of computer crimes include but are not limited to unlawful trespassing, identity theft, bank heists, terrorism, and various types of fraud. Bullies, pedophiles, terrorist groups, and organized crime syndicates, all use computers to carry out their illegal activities or acquire funding.

The problem of cyber crime can affect all facets of society, and all walks of life. Bank accounts can be robbed or even emptied by hackers breaking into financial institutions. Computer networks can be clogged by denial-of-service attacks, a criminal act in which computers are overburdened by floods of data requests. Corporate spies or disgruntled employees can use computers to steal trade secrets from companies, and any kind of media and software can potentially be distributed without being paid for. Everyone, including those who do not go online, is exposed to the threat of identity theft and the ruining of their credit rating by financial predators. Because they are more impressionable than adults, children who go online are especially vulnerable to pedophiles who seek to lure them into sexual relations. Even children who don't go online can be stalked or monitored by malicious individuals. They can also become the victim of cyber bullies. Cyber bullies are fellow children, or even adults, who issue threats or spread harmful rumors about their targets online. In some cases these bullies also assume the identity of their victim in order to make them look bad. Cyberbullies prey on children's often fragile emotions, which has occasionally led to victims committing suicide.

To confront this growing problem, laws have been passed that provide for the punishment of people who engage in illegal activities using computers. The United States government has a series of state and Federal laws that address many facets of computer crime. The No Electronic Theft (NET) Act of 1997 and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 exist to combat piracy, or the illegal copying of copyrighted works. The Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act of 1998, the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act of 2004 and the Identity Theft Enforcement And Restitution Act of 2008 are laws that protect people from predators who attempt to steal personal information in order to hijack their victims' identities. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 and the USAPATRIOT Act of 2001 punish those who break into computers and gain unauthorized access, as well as those who engage in denial-of-service attacks. The CAN-SPAM Act is a law designed to deter the fraudulent use of unsolicited commercial email, also known as spam. The Children's Internet Protection Act of 2003 (CIPA) protects children from pornographic or otherwise objectionable content that is not suitable for minors. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) strictly regulates the collection of children's personal information. The Interstate Communications Act and the Interstate Stalking and Prevention Act are two of several major Federal laws that deal with cyber harassment and cyberstalking, especially across state lines. A variety of state government laws also exist to deal with the use of computers to facilitate bullying, stalking and harassment.

All state and Federal laws that pertain to cyber crime impose a combination of prison sentences, fines and restitution. Violations of the DMCA can bring penalties as high as $1,000,000 and ten years in prison. Identity theft is punishable by up to five years in prison under the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act. If identity theft is involved as a tool for terrorism, then that penalty can increase to 25 years. Federal laws regarding threats and harassment provide a punishment of up to five years of imprisonment. Cyberstalking without the threat of violence brings a two-year prison sentence. Violations of the CAN-SPAM Act can result in a fine of $16,000 per incident. The USAPATRIOT Act is the latest law to pertain to computer hacking, and it increases the maximum imprisonment penalty under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to 20 years. Violations of any of these laws can also lead to lawsuits and expensive civil court judgments against cyber criminals. Cyberbullying is mostly subject to a growing number of state laws which include incarceration for adults and juvenile hall for minors, as well as fines. Federal laws regarding cyberbullying are still being considered. The penalties for violations of COPPA vary, however some companies have been assessed with fines as high as $400,000 or $1,000,000 for serious violations.

Despite the existence of a variety of Federal and state laws against cyber crime, the illegal use of computers is still highly prevalent. This is because computer crime is sometimes difficult to trace to the perpetrator. One major advantage that cyber criminals enjoy is that it is easy for anyone to remain anonymous while online. Destroying or altering evidence before it falls into the hands of law enforcement is another way that criminals avoid being caught. Hackers can break into computers and use them to commit crimes, thus implicating the legitimate owners of those computers or networks. Perhaps the biggest barrier to effective law enforcement in the world of cyber crime is the fact that criminals can sometimes operate from other countries. Everything from identity theft to cyber terrorism can be perpetrated by people in other parts of the world, including nations that do not care for the United States or its laws. The international nature of computer crime is a primary reason why the United States and other nations are pushing for global treaties that enforce a consistent set of laws world-wide. Despite this, many nations do not sign onto these treaties, and these countries can become havens for cyber criminals.