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Computer Crimes

Essay by   •  November 22, 2010  •  Research Paper  •  2,137 Words (9 Pages)  •  1,771 Views

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Computer crime is no longer exclusively the realm of the adolescent computer "hacker" who bypasses passwords to enter corporate computers searching for data files and games, as depicted in such movies as War games and Sneakers. More and more, computers are being used in all types of crimes, to include traditional crimes of violence and theft. The investigator of the future must be aware that critical evidence, which can help him, prove or disprove the crime, may be locked away in a computer and/or external storage media and often requires more analysis than part-time, in-house "computer experts" can provide. The successful investigator will recognize that computer evidence is forensic evidence that must be professionally analyzed. (Beare, p. 25-41)

Computers, especially desktop and easily portable laptop-style personal computers are rapidly proliferating throughout society. It is estimated that by the year 2000, 80% of all Americans will use personal computers at home. Virtually all businesses use computers in some way, if for nothing else than to record sales transactions or as a word processor for their correspondence. Yet many law enforcement and investigative agencies do not have dedicated computer crime units. Of those that do, few have the in-house resources either to completely understand and analyze the sometimes complex issues that arise or to fully exploit the information that the computer storage media might contain. The criminal element, on the other hand, is full of individuals who exploit the strengths and weaknesses of computers and find them to be vulnerable targets or, paradoxically, powerful tools. (Charney & Alexander, p. 931-957)

Many articles have been written about computer security and computer crime involving computer security, but few address the potential for the application of computer technology in traditional crimes and the value and availability of evidence that can be obtained from a victim's or suspect's computer. For the legal professional, law enforcement investigator, or corporate security professional, a thorough knowledge of the potential for computers to be used in criminal activity of all types is critical to combat the many forms of computer crime.

Potential Criminal Applications of a Computer

Computers can be used as the target, tool, or instrument of a crime. Increasingly, valuable information is kept on a company's computers, and is often the target of theft, destruction, or alteration by disgruntled employees, industrial spies, or external hackers. Contrary to popular belief, the outside "hacker" who breaks into a corporation's computer system via phone lines and modem connections is rarely as successful as the "trusted insider" who already has access to the system and exploits it for his or her own purposes. Employees being hired away from one company are sometimes asked to bring copies of computer disks with them to the competing company that contain sensitive or valuable data files pertaining to clients, financial records, or research data. Corporate and industrial espionage via computer is increasing. The modern spy no longer needs to use sophisticated miniature cameras or microfilm: Hundreds of pages of computer-stored documents can be carried on a commonly available pocket size floppy disk. In February 1989, a U.S. Army soldier defected to East Germany, taking with him two floppy disks containing key portions of the U.S. General War Plans for Europe, making him the first computer spy in U.S. history. (United States v. Peri, p. 23-45) Disgruntled or careless employees can bring computer viruses into the company's computer system and wreak havoc if effective safeguards are not employed. Corporations are learning that information has value, and can easily be compromised, stolen, or destroyed.

The computer can be a powerful tool used to commit crimes as well, as evidenced by the debit card "cloning" mentioned earlier in this article. In addition, high-resolution scanners are allowing persons to copy legitimate documents, alter the data, and thereby forge new documents with the fraudulent data. In 1994, an individual in Dallas, TX was found to create authentic-looking temporary Texas driver's licenses using his scanner and a laser printer. Insurance cards, money orders, checks, and other documents can be duplicated using easily obtainable graphic editing and publishing programs. Computer stored financial information can be manipulated to cover up embezzlement and thefts. In early 1993, officials at Reese Air Force Base in Texas discovered that a low-level computer operator had altered computerized auditing reports and account records to steal $2.1 million. He was caught only after flaunting his wealth by buying numerous high-priced sports cars. (Green, p. 21-32)

Computers are also increasingly used as the instrument of the crime by recording and storing information pertaining to the criminal act itself. Just as legitimate individuals and businesses use computers to handle their data, records, and correspondence, no legitimate businesses and individuals will also. Illegal bookmaking operations find a computer invaluable for recording bets, computing the "line" of bets, and figuring the payoffs, all while calculating the percentage kept for the "house," regardless of how the bets are paid. (Giacopassi & Stitt, p. 117-131) As early as 1984, law enforcement officials in southern Texas raided an illegal bookmaking operation, expecting to find a typical backroom operation with several operators manning the usual multiple phones, bet boards, and rice-paper betting slips. Instead, they were surprised to find just a six-button phone and a middle-aged, pot-bellied man and his wife, who were entering the bets on a small Apple computer.

Prostitution rings, boiler-room telemarketing fraud operations, and other illegal activities find computers essential for recording and tracking their data. Individuals accustomed to using a computer to type documents and enter and record data also use their computers for their illegal activity. Child molesters have been known to write up their activities in electronic journals, and suicide notes have been found on the deceased's personal computer as early as 1984. Computer-literate criminals utilize the latest technology to further their illegal enterprises just as much as the honest businessperson and documents are no longer exclusively written on paper.

In each of the cases and examples mentioned, professional analysis of the computer system and/or storage media was instrumental to solving the case or prosecuting the individuals. This is because at some point in time, the evidence of the criminal activity ended up on something tangible

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