Defining and Measuring Crime: The Cyber Dimension


One of the most interesting developments in criminology over the past 25 years is the extent to which crime has moved online, something that has important ramifications for the sociology of crime and deviance, both in terms of how it’s theorised and how it’s taught.

When thinking about the different ways crime can be defined and measured, for example, there’s still a general preoccupation at a-level with what we might call face-to-face / bricks-and-mortar types of crime – from interpersonal violence, through burglary to fraud: crime that, by-and-large, takes place in real, as opposed to cyber, space.

While it’s not to say these forms of crime are suddenly unimportant or unworthy of our interest, it’s important for students to recognise and understand changes to criminal behaviour and activity reflected by developments in cybercrime.

A preoccupation with realspace crime, for example, has, until very recently, been a mainstay of crime statistics at a-level, from Police Recorded Crime to the British Crime Survey. The failure to recognise the rise and significance of cybercrime has arguably given us a somewhat distorted view of both the extent of crime and, by extension, the perpetrators of such crime, in our society.

Although the former now includes a general approximation of online crime and the latter included questions about online victimisation in 2015, there remains a general preoccupation with the offline world and this, as Anderson et. al. (2019) note, has important ramifications for how we measure the extent of crime:

In 2005, the UK government brokered a deal between the police and the banks whereby fraud was reported first to the banks, who in turn might report it to the police. The banks also agreed to fund a specialist police unit to investigate card and cheque fraud. The public rationale for this was efficiency; the effect was to manage the fraud statistics downwards.

For a decade, reported crime fell; successive police chiefs and Home Secretaries took the credit. Some criminologists complained that crime was just going online, where it wasn’t being counted. Eventually in 2015 the British Crime Survey included fraud in the UK. It became rapidly clear that more than twice as many households were falling victims to scams (that are mostly online) than suffered traditional property crimes such as burglary or car theft”.

The contemporary measurement of cybercrime, therefore, has one very important ramification, namely, as they argue:

The narrative that crime fell over the past ten years is now acknowledged to have been based on an illusion. The inclusion of fraud and computer offences has increased the total from about 6 million offences to about 11 million. Fraud was also experienced by more adults than any other crime”.

The relative failure to acknowledge the importance of cybercrime at a-level also has implications for our understanding of perpetrators, particularly in terms of categories like class, age, gender and ethnicity. Where online crime tends to be a global phenomenon, with the ability to cut across national borders at will, it may become both increasingly difficult to identify those involved and differentiate them in terms of conventional crime categories.

To take one example, where most conventional crime is committed by men the same may not necessarily be true of cybercrime, where levels of physical effort and risk are generally much lower.

Measuring the Changing Cost of Cybercrime

Anderson et. al’s research is a useful resource for a-level teachers looking to get up to speed with some of the major ideas and developments related to cybercrime, for three main reasons:

Types of Cybercrime

1. It details and explains the main types of cybercrime, from Telecoms fraud, through cryptocrime to romance scams, with useful descriptions of each. Cryptocrime, for example, relates to the development of various cryptocurrencies, the most well-known of which is probably Bitcoin, and their usefulness for and involvement in various types of crime.

In terms of usefulness, for example, the anonymity of cryptocurrency ownership and transactions makes the currency an ideal choice for Ransomeware hackers: inserting malicious software onto a computer / system that encrypts the data it contains. If the (cryptocurrency) ransom is not paid, the data remains inaccessible to its owner.

Specific types of cryptocurrency crimes include Ponzi frauds and bot mining. In the former, investors are encouraged to keep buying a cryptocurrency, thereby artificially inflating its worth. When the price is high enough – or no more investors can be found – those behind the scheme then sell-off the currency, deflating its worth and leaving investors with largely worthless investments.

In the latter, scammers use malware to take control of infected computers and use them to mine a cryptocurrency. This uses large amounts of processing power (and electricity), the cost of which is borne by the infected user while the scammer takes any resulting cryptocurrency. Bitcoin, for example, is currently worth around £6,200 per coin – but it’s value has recently been as high as £20,000.

2. The estimated cost of different types of cybercrime are also given in the research, made possible by the use of victimisation surveys from a range of countries and sources:

• US National Crime Victimization Study
• British Crime Survey
• The Belgian victimisation study
• The French victimisation study
• The Australian victimisation study
• The E-CRIME cross-country victimisation study
• Claims data from the cyber insurance market.

The research provides an overview of each type of study and this can be used to develop student understanding of how research methods can be applied to different types of cybercrime and victimisation.

3. Change’s since the previous study in 2012. This gives us a rough idea about how social and technological changes impact on cybercrime. Copyright theft in relation to music, for example, has seen a substantial fall in criminal revenue over the past 25 years mainly due to the development of streaming music services – from iTunes in 2001 to Spotify in 2008 – that made it easier and cheaper to listen to and buy legal music services (something that could also be used to illustrate Durkheim’s argument about the functions of crime: in this instance, adaption and change).

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