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JILT 1997 (3) - Rosemary Wilson

Hollinger, R (ed.)

Crime, Deviance and the Computer.

Dartmouth, 1997. £99.50
xli + 573pp. ISBN :1 85521 467 9

Reviewed by
Rosemary Wilson
University of Teesside
R.Wilson@tees.ac.uk


This is a Book Review published on 31 October 1997.

Citation: Wilson R, 'Hollinger R (ed) Crime Deviance and the Computer', Book Review, 1997 (3) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/bookrev/97_3wils/>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1997_3/wilson/>


This book brings together forty essays representing three decades of research on crime, deviance and computers. As an academic criminologist with a professional interest in computer crime I was delighted of learn about the publication of this text. Although our everyday life is characterised to an increasing extent by computerised transactions, there are few books which deal with the topic of computer abuse. For the most part, what we know about the problem has been based upon media, fictional representations or cinema entertainment. According to the media the fiction is becoming a reality. Further explanations for our limited knowledge may be seen to be located in the problem of computer abuse being colonised by computer experts or lawyers and many of the debates taking place in cyberspace. Many people do not have access to this information and therefore their ability to participate in discussions excludes them from decision-making about issues which should involve everyone. This book makes more accessible a fascinating account of the history, emergence and responses to computer abuse.

The book is organised around four focal periods. The first of these periods deals with the 'discovery' of the computer abuse problem and concern with estimates of computer abuse. The second period deals with the criminalisation of computer crime. The third stage focuses upon how the law contributed to the demonisation of hackers and how this ignored crimes committed by organisational insiders. The final period deals with the censorship of information and the internet. Although decisions have to be made as to how to organise the literature the chronolological order adopted facilitates understanding.

The book steers one through a fascinating course of events in the chronology of the computer crime problem. It shows how the identification of threat from outside of the 'computer community' helped generate support for legal intervention and how this was directed towards the individual hacker. While this generated a sense of solidarity among the 'computer community', it diverted attention away other important sources of the problem, in particular, the activities of organisational 'insiders' and employee theft of information. It may be argued that many organisations provide an environment conducive to computer abuse, for example, universities provide access to technology and encouragement with the development of skills and knowledge in computing. Research conducted by the editor (Hollinger 1993) about attitudes towards computer abuse revealed that 11 per cent of college students disclosed involvement in software piracy and unauthorised access. This highlights the need for critical discussion about the definition of the problem, the source of such definitions and the purpose these serve. There is a need to encourage a critical dialogue about what is meant by the notion of the computer community. To avoid doing so will result in ignoring the nature and extent of the computer abuse problem.

Beyond these definitional concerns, the book draws attention to a variety of issues raised by computer crime, in particular those relating to law enforcement. Many of these problems are derived from an environment in which there is little face-to-face interaction and thus identification of the perpetrator is difficult to establish. For example, the investigation and prosecution of fraud or sex related crimes on the internet meets with difficulty. It is not only the environment which poses problems for law enforcement but the technology itself since debates took place about the legal status of information and whether information could be considered 'property' or 'product'. In the event that criminal proceedings are appropriate 'harm' has to be shown to be intentional. Beyond this, Brenda Nelson's essay considers whether punishment is an appropriate response to the problem of computer abuse. These sorts of discussions are of value in the light of recent court decisions which infer that criminal behaviour is an addiction and that rehabilitation or treatment is preferable to punishment. New technologies bring with them new forms of offending and the need for revising the way we think about dealing with computer abuse. In this respect the book recognises the need for the education and training of police officers to deal with the problem. Such educational initiatives should be extended to effect change in judicial attitudes and the wider public concerning prevention of computer abuse.

While the book highlights the dearth of information available on the prosecution and sentencing of computer criminals, there is little evidence or commentary on the impact of computer abuse on individuals or organisations. Thus, there is plenty of scope for generating further information about this problem. A useful starting point might be to generate critical discussion surrounding the concept of the 'computer community'. Indeed, this concept may be helpful in generating dialogue among users surrounding issues of security and thus fuelling debates about the need for self regulation and or state control.

This diverse collection of essays on the problem of computer crime and deviance is long overdue and to be welcomed by academics and practitioners alike. The book is a wise investment for the academic criminologist since it brings together for the first time a wide variety of materials which deal with the frequently neglected criminological dimension of computer abuse. This edition, however, is compromised by the eclectic nature of the materials which are presented in a variety of textual conventions and fonts and the reproduction of tables and diagrams of an inferior quality. Beyond these comments, the actual content of the book could be improved through the inclusion of materials which locate the problem of computer abuse in the UK, European and international contexts. A less expensive paperback edition may help make this text available to a wider audience. While hardback editions may be thought of as limited in their ability to provide state of the art information and therefore to be replaced by more effective means of communication such as electronic books and journals, this book provides a welcome contribution to a neglected but fascinating area of study which concerns us all. This book is an essential reference book which will stimulate further and much needed critical dialogue on the subject of deviance on the electronic frontiers.

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