Explaining cybercrime using criminological theories

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The internet is perhaps today’s most influential technological invention and continues to change daily life for virtually everyone on Earth. Millions of people are plugged into cyberspace, and thousands more enter the online world every day. Not only has the Internet revolutionized the way we interact with others and learn, it has forever changed the way we live. As internet and computer technologies continue to thrive; criminals have found ways to use these technologies as a tool for their deviant acts. Cybercrimes are a new breed of crime that are perpetrated using computers, or are otherwise related to them. Cyber crime is different and more heinous than conventional crime in that the crime is committed through an electronic medium which makes it difficult to track and identify the criminal. The most common types of cybercrime include cyber fraud, defamation, hacking, bullying, and phishing. Within the field of criminology, a number of theories exist that attempt to explain why some people engage in deviant behavior, while others abstain from it. Although, these theories were originally meant to explain crimes committed in the ‘real world’, they can still be applied to cybercrime. These theories include social learning theory, low self-control theory, general strain theory, frustration aggression hypothesis, routine activity theory, and situational crime prevention theory. This paper will analyze aspects of the above theories, for the purpose of seeing which best explains the cause of cybercrime.

Akers’ social learning theory is a general theory of crime and has been used to explain a diverse array of criminal behaviours. This work embodies within it four fundamental premises that include differential association, definitions, differential reinforcement and imitation (Burruss et al., 2012). Social learning theory is based on the idea that individuals develop motivations and skills to commit crime through the association with or exposure to others who are involved in crime (i.e., associating with deviant peers). Akers’s proposed that this exposure to deviant behavior provided individuals with definitions that are seen as either approving of or neutralizing the behaviour. These definitions become rationalizations for criminals when committing a crime. Differential reinforcement refers to the rewards that are associated with a particular criminal behavior. This criminal behavior is originally learned through the process of imitation, which occurs when individuals learn actions and behavior by watching and listening to others. So, when an individual commits a crime, he or she is mimicking the actions that they have seen others engage in (Burruss et al., 2012). In regards to cybercrime, research has found that social learning theory can explain the development and ongoing issue of software piracy. In their study of software piracy, Burruss et al, found that individuals who associate with software piracy peers learn and subsequently accept the deviant conduct. Software piracy requires a certain degree of skills and knowledge to access and deviant peers to originally learn these skills from. Furthermore, the deviant individuals rationalize their criminal behavior and help in the fostering of a network that connects and teaches other individuals these rationalizations and behavior. The study also suggested that individuals are more likely to engage in software piracy when they see others experiences positive reinforcement for their participation (Burruss et al., 2012). Not only does social control theory explain for software piracy, elements of this theory can be attributed in other cybercrimes. For example in any crime, the rationalizations and skills must be learned and behavior is reinforced through the association and observation of others. Thus, the main idea behind social learning theory is that we become who we are based on our surroundings and this explanation can be used to explain cybercrime.

While social learning theory emphasizes the importance of external factors that influence criminal involvement, low self-control theory posits that low self-control is a key factor underlying criminality. This theory was originally developed by criminologists Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi. They proposed that their self-control theory can explain all types of crimes, all the time (Burruss et al., 2012). Individuals with low self-control were characterized with being risk taking, short-sighted, impulsive and prefer simple and easy tasks. These characteristics inhibit an individual's ability to accurately calculate the consequences of deviance. According to this theory, crime is seen as a means of obtaining immediate gratification, and the ability to delay such short-term desires is linked to self-control. As such, those with a propensity for criminal involvement are thought to lack sufficient self-control. Also, people with low self-control act impulsively- without much thought and based on what they are feeling at the moment. This makes them risk takers as they do not consider the consequences of their actions. Finally, low self-control people are focused on themselves and lack empathy towards others (Burruss et al., 2012). According to Gottfredson and Hirschi, low self-control originates in early socialization when parents are ineffective in their parenting. Therefore, neglecting and uncaring parents are likely to fail to socialize their child to properly delay gratification, care about the feelings of others, and restrain their impulses. As a result, children with low levels of self-control end up being more prone to crime, and their criminal propensity continues into later life. The characteristics of low self-control can be applied to some simple forms of cybercrime, including software piracy. In their study, Burruss et al , stated that levels of low self-control are directly related to the act of software piracy. For instance, an individual is likely to perform software piracy because they are impulsive and unable to wait to purchase a copy of the software. These individuals are not likely to be empathetic to the copyright holder and neglect any responsibility. Further, these individuals are likely to be attracted to the thrill and ease of engaging in software piracy. The study also found that low self-control does have an effect on software piracy and that social learning theory measures (i.e., associating with deviant peers and positive attitudes toward software piracy) condition this effect. Thus, from the characteristics of low self-control, those with low levels of self-control are likely to participate in deviant behavior both on and offline because of their desire of immediate gratification.

Robert Agnew’s general strain theory proposes that strain leads to negative emotions, which may lead to a number of outcomes, including delinquency. The specific strains discussed in the theory include the failure to achieve positively valued goals (e.g., money), the removal of positively valued stimuli (e.g., loss of a valued possession), and the presentation of negatively valued stimuli (e.g., physical abuse) (Patchin & Hinduja, 2011). The first strain looks at the gap between the expectations of the individual and what they actually achieve, which leads to disappointment and resentment. The second type of strain is caused when a positively valued stimulus is removed and the result is delinquency. This criminal behavior may present itself as an attempt to ease or replace the stimuli. The final type of strain occurs when confronted with negative stimuli. This may cause delinquency as a means to terminate or avoid the negative stimuli (Patchin & Hinduja, 2011). According to Agnew, strain does not directly cause crime but rather promotes negative emotions like aggression and frustration. This is directly in conjunction with the frustration-aggression hypothesis by Yale university psychologists. They believed that anger comes before frustration, and frustration can manifest into both aggressive and non-aggressive behavior (Runions, 2013). In turn, these negative emotions necessitate coping responses as a way to relieve internal pressure. Coping via illegal behaviour and violence may be especially true for adolescents because of their limited resources and inability to escape frustrating environments. In their article, Patchin & Hinduja, concluded that general strain theory can be used to explain illegal behavior such as cyber bullying among youth.

Cyber bullying is a serious and growing problem that occurs when youth use electronics to harass or intimidate their peers in a deliberate attempt to inflict direct or indirect harm. There are some unique elements in the digital setting that are not present offline, such as: anonymity, constant connectivity, and permanence. This new technology allows victims to be attacked at anytime and the anonymity of cyber bullies makes it difficult to identify them. Agnew argues that strain makes people feel angry, frustrated, depressed, and essentially creates pressure for corrective action on the part of the victim. In response to this pressure, victims react by wanting to take a corrective action as a means to alleviate the bad feelings. Consequently for some victims, cyber bullying is one corrective action that adolescents might take to mitigate the bad feelings (Patchin & Hinduja, 2011). Together, general strain theory and frustration aggression hypothesis, provide an understanding of how people, especially youth, respond and deal with negative strain, whether it may be to bully others or do deviant acts to alleviate the strain.

Routine Activity Theory was developed by Cohen and Felson to originally fill the shortcomings in existing models that failed to adequately address crime rate trends since the end of World War II. They suggested that the behavior of most victims is repetitive and predictable and that the likelihood of victimization is dependent on three elements: motivated offenders, suitable targets, and the absence of capable guardians (Reyns, 2013). The motivated offender is someone willing to commit a crime if an opportunity presents itself. A suitable target is one that the motivated offender values (e.g., credit card information). In addition to these, a capable guardian includes anything that obstructs the offender’s ability to acquire the target (e.g., antivirus, encryption). With the increasing use of the internet, criminals have found new opportunities to victimize their targets on a whole new platform. Researchers have found some support for applying the tenets of routine activity theory to the study of cybercrime (Van Wilsem, 2011). People whose regular activities place them in situations where they have the possibility of interacting with offenders are at an increased risk of being victimized. Research has found that the amount of time spent online, more use of internet banking and online purchases, and risky online behavior make people more suitable to offenders. Individuals with these actions are more likely to be targeted for identity theft. Furthermore, the lack of antivirus and network security (capable guardians) is associated with more victimization (Reyns, 2013). So, routine activity theory can be used, to an extent, to explain certain types of cybercrime.

Situational crime prevention is a crime prevention strategy that addresses specific crimes by manipulating the environment in a way that increases the risk to the offender, while reducing the potential reward for committing the crime (Hinduja & Kooi, 2013). It is rooted in rational choice theory, routine activities theory, and crime pattern theory. Like other prevention measures, situational prevention focuses on reducing crime opportunities rather than the criminals. This theory differs from other criminological theories in that they do not look at why the offender did the crime, but rather how to prevent crime from altering the physical surroundings where the crime takes place. Essentially, it seeks to make the criminal act more difficult to commit in the first place. Like other primary crime prevention measures, situational prevention tends to focus on reducing crime opportunities rather than on the characteristics of criminals or potential criminals. In regards to cybercrime, there are ways in which space can be designed to prevent crime through: target hardening, access control, deflecting offenders, and controlling facilitators (Hinduja & Kooi, 2013). Target hardening is the actual physical (or digital) barriers that reduce chances of crime, such as encrypting sensitive information. Access control involves strategies to prevent potential offenders from areas that a crime can occur. This includes photo ID cards, passwords, and check-in booths. Deflecting offenders is concerned with initiatives to move potential offenders away from their crime targets. For example, storing valuable data off-site would deter potential offenders from searching for it. Controlling facilitators involves checking elements that may cause a crime, such as doing background checks on employees or restricting unauthorized installations on computers (Hinduja & Kooi, 2013). Research has found that situational crime prevention strategies can be used to reduce cyber stalking and other online victimization crimes. Also, prevention strategies can be applied InfoSec to effectively protect the assets of organizations from being exploited online (Hinduja & Kooi, 2013). Theoretically, if used effectively, the principles of situational crime prevention seem to be able to prevent most types of cyber crime.

Computers and the internet have become common place in today’s society. This new technology has resulted in the development of a new form of crime, cybercrime. I think that criminal behavior cannot be explained entirely by one theory; it requires the combination of various theories. Different aspects of each theory can be used in conjunction to compensate for what each individual theory failed to explain. For example, social learning theory believes that crime is learned through association with deviant peers and research has already shown that there is a relationship between the number of deviant peers an individual has and his or her participation in software piracy (Burruss et al., 2012). But, researchers have not examined whether social learning theory applies to all types of cybercrimes or just certain cybercrimes. On the other hand, low self control theory asserts that low self control is the cause of crime all the time. This may be true for some criminals, but many criminals, like those involved in white collar crimes, do not adhere to the principles of low self control. However, while self-control theory is useful in explaining why individuals may act in a certain way, it does not explain the situations that must be met for a crime to occur. Routine activity theory describes the situational factors that must be present for a crime to occur. It is more difficult to apply this theory to cybercrime because the offender and victim do not necessarily have to meet for the crime to occur. Similar to low self control theory, strain theory maintains that when an individual cannot achieve his or her goals, he or she experiences strain and as a result they may turn to crime (Patchin & Hinduja, 2011). But, researchers could further study whether an individual’s strain in the ‘real world’ affects their deviant behavior in the virtual world. So, an individual’s low self-control and negative strain combined with his or her deviant associations and regular activities can increase an individual’s risk of being victimized online. Future studies of cybercrime victimization may draw benefit from using a combination of these theories to explore the problem. Cybercrime research will be important to our understanding of crime as our society becomes more and more dependent on technology.


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Hinduja, Sameer and Kooi, Brandon. (2013). Curtailing cyber and information security vulnerabilities through situational crime prevention. Security Journal, 26(4), 383-402

Patchin, Justin W. and Hinduja, Sameer. (2011). Traditional and non-traditional bullying among youth: A test of general strain theory. Youth & Society, 43(2), 727-751.

Reyns, Bradford W. (2013). Online routines and identity theft victimization: Further explaining routine activity theory beyond direct-control offenses. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 50(2), 216-238

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Van Wilsem, Johan. (2011). Worlds tied together? Online and non-domestic routine activities and their impact on digital and traditional threat victimization. European Journal of Criminology, 8(2), 115-127