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Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security

Towards a Coherent Definition of Cybercrime: A Philosophical Analysis

Herman Tavani - Rivier College

Apr 18, 2001


Recent criminal, or at least questionable, activities involving the use of computer technology have received considerable media attention. Reports of these activities have recently appeared as cover stories in reputable periodicals, as headlines in major newspapers, and as lead stories on television news programs in the U.S. and around the globe. Consider three recent incidents, each of which illustrates a different type of alleged criminal activity involving computer technology. In May 2000, the ILOVEYOU computer virus, also referred to as the Love Bug, infected computer systems in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, disrupting e-commerce activities as well as the operations of many governmental agencies. In February 2000, a series of "cyber-attacks" on major commercial Web sites, owned and operated by Amazon, eBay, CNN, Yahoo, and others, resulted in "denials of service" to users who wished to access those sites for legitimate purposes. And in December 1999, the owners and operators of the Napster Web site were sued by the Recording Industry Association of America for "illegally" distributing copyrighted music (in the form of MP3 files) on the Internet - a case that was recently decided in the courts (against Napster).

Each of the incidents described in the preceding paragraph would seem to be a "genuine" instance of computer crime or cybercrime. Other recently reported criminal activities which also involve the use of computer technology, and which might initially appear to be instances of computer crime, arguably are not. For example, there have been reports about pedophiles using the Internet to lure unsuspecting young children. There have also been reported cases of "cyber-stalking," including one case in which a person used a computer to stalk his victim, whom he also later murdered. We have also heard about incidents in which the Internet has been used in the distribution of child pornography. Should these three examples of criminal activities also be viewed as instances of computer crime? Or are these cases different, in certain important respects, from the three examples that we considered in the preceding paragraph?

In this presentation, an attempt is made to establish precise and coherent criteria for determining which criminal activities involving the use of computer technology should and should not count as legitimate instances of computer crime. First, we consider whether having a distinct category of crime called "computer crime" is either necessary or useful. In doing so, we differentiate legal, moral, and descriptive categories of computer crime. Following a defense of the view that having a descriptive category is indeed worthwhile, some recent definitions of computer crime are considered and rejected. A new definition of computer crime is then proposed and defended. Finally, it is argued that the application of such a definition can help to eliminate at least some of the confusion currently associated with criminal activities involving computer technology.

About the Speaker

Herman Tavani (Ph.D., Temple University) is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Rivier College, Nashua NH. Before joining the full-time faculty at Rivier College, he worked in the computer industry as software technical writer and software publications supervisor. The author of numerous publications in computer ethics, and co-author of the recently published textbook Readings in CyberEthics (Jones and Bartlett, 2001), he is currently Associate Editor of Computers and Society and Book Review Editor of Ethics and Information Technology.

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