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With the overwhelming development of information communication technologies, Internet has become an important, if not essential, part of many peoples life. Internet, as an essential part of a huge and diverse population of the world, also becomes a space for criminal activities. According to a quote by Castells (1997: 166), "Crime is as old as humankind. But global crime, the networking of powerful criminal organizations, and their associates, in shared activities throughout the planet, is a new phenomena that profoundly affects international and national economies, politics, security and ultimately societies at large". In other words, crimes are also observed on the Internet nowadays, and they are known as 'cybercrime'.
Similar to organized crimes, there is no internationally agreed definition on cybercrime yet. The commonly accepted definition in Europe defines cybercrime as 'criminal offences committed by means of electronic communication networks and information systems or against such networks and systems" (Mcfree, XXXX: 7). The cyberspace can be a tool to commit the old form of crimes, whereas it can also be a platform to commit computer-related crime. So, cybercrime involves three cases, according to Grabosky (2013), they are conventional crimes committed with computers, e.g. child pornography and forgery; attacks on computer network, e.g. computer theft; conventional criminal cases exist in digital forms, e.g. drug trafficking & prostitution.
As pointed out by the statistic of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) (2011), the total loss of money in 2011 result from reported cybercrime is USD$ 485,253,871, let alone unreported cybercrime and not yet criminalized cybercriminals all over the world. Apart from the increasing economic loss from cybercrime, there are also evidences that cybercrimes on organized forms are becoming more frequent since 2004, as reported by the Organized Crime Situation Report in 2005 by the Council of Europe (2005), in other words, more organized cybercrimes are observed online. According to Chu (2013a), an elaborate definition of organized crime consists of two or more person who engages either in the supply of illegal goods and services or predatory crime, or both, with continuity of purpose.
Organized crimes exist since a century ago in the United States; starting in the 20th century, it becomes equated with traditional organized crime groups like Mafia (Brenner, 2002). In the 21st century, organized crimes do not just exist in the real world, but also in the cyber world, so it would be interesting to explore what influences the cyberspace would have over the activities of traditional organized crime groups.
In this essay, in order to facilitate the discussion, I would like to focus on four major types of organized cybercrime that traditional organized crime groups are also getting involved in in the real world or cyberspace. They include cyber theft which steals private information for extortion or fraud; music, video and software piracy that traditional organized crime groups always get involved in the real world; pornography, drug trafficking and prostitution that are also found evident online. By focusing on these four types of cybercrime, I would argue that cyberspace does not pose threats on traditional organized groups by comparing the structures and organizations between cybercrime and traditional organized crime groups, discussing the characteristics of cyberspace to explore people's reasons of committing cybercrime, and finally analyzing the trends of cybercrime to conclude why cyberspace would not pose threats on the traditional organized crime groups in the real world.
The emergence of cybercriminals
The emergence of cybercriminal groups can be divided into financial motivation and individual psychological reasons out of the distinctive characteristics of the cyberspace, and these individuals form into groups online to commit organized cybercrimes. By looking at these reasons and even compared them with the origins of the traditional organized crimes, it is obvious that the intentions behind organized cybercriminals have nothing to do with challenging traditional organized crime groups in the real world.
The cyberspace is distinctive of its anonymity and intangibility when compared with the real world, these characteristics of the cyberspace make it a tool for traditional organized crime groups to earn profits and 'ordinary' people to engage in organized Internet criminal activities. However, according to what Russian anti-virus specialist Eugene Kaspersky observed (Choo, 2008: 276), in the interview of him by Infosecurity (2007), 'IT criminals are just IT people who change their mind, or have a broken mind. It seems that traditional criminals are quite far way from them'.
First, the cyberspace offers anonymity so that it is difficult to know who is the perpetrator of the crime (The Council of Europe, 2004). Apart from making law enforcement difficult, the anonymity is also one of the significant features of cyberspace that encourages people to commit cybercrime. This is because everyone can hide their actual identity in the cyberspace, so people are in a liminal situation under the anonymity of the online environment, according to the concept of liminality by Turner (1967: 105), cited by Matthews (2006). This is because they are no longer in the real life positions, so they are free from the associated values, norms of behavior, fixed roles and responsibilities imposed by their actual positions, and the loss of these constraints also allows people to interact with others of the same circumstances in the online environment. At the same time, Bakhtin (1965) & Presdee (2000) also pointed out that the anonymity makes cyberspace carnivalistic space in which disempowered individuals can get rid of the terrestrial hierarchy in the real world. At the same time, anonymity also offers people a sense of physical detachment, so they will dissociate themselves from self-control and accountability when they are perpetrating (Matthews, 2006). Therefore, it is clear that the anonymous nature of the cyberspace can turn those who are suppressed in the reality to online, but they just commit organized cybercrimes on the purpose of transcending statuses (Bakhtin, 1965 & Matthews, 2006), rather than threatening traditional organized crime groups.
Second, cybercrime engineers risks to the real world out of intangible things and virtual environments, so cyber-criminals go through a process of neutralization when they are perpetrating online. The techniques of neutralization pointed out by Syke & Matza (1957) state that cyber-criminals could still maintain their positive images in reality, this is because the online environment neutralizes their senses of guilt, e.g. they can deny the existences of victims with notions like 'it isn't real', 'it isn't really there' (Matthew, 2006: 43). Hence, for those who commit cybercrime tend to believe that they are still normal people in the reality, so they are by no means trying to or intended to threaten traditional organized crime groups through committing cybercrimes.
For the financial motivation, there are two kinds cybercriminal groups that are trying to earn money online. One of them is composed of technically sophisticated members who organize targeted attacks to steal personal information online for fraud or extortion, e.g. a five-members hacker group with members working as computer programmers was arrested in 2001 (BBC News, 2001; Choo, 2008); another type of cybercriminal groups is composed of members who possess a minimal level of technical knowledge but making use of the available knowledge and software online to sell illicit goods and services in the virtual environment, e.g. some envelope stealers are actually people with limited technical knowledge buying ready to use malware online to steal login information (Choo, 2008). Therefore, some cybercriminal groups are only a group of individuals, who try to make use of their computer knowledge or taking advantages of the opportunities offered by hacking software online to enjoy economic gains. Although traditional organized crime groups are also financially motived criminal groups, they mostly target at the real world and they also demonstrate traits far more complicated than organized cybercriminal groups. So, organized cybercrime groups are simply insufficient to challenge the traditional organized crime groups in the reality because of their distinctive structures and organizations, which will be discussed later in this essay.
Although the origin of organized crimes can also be hinged on psychological reasons like psychological disorders and social reasons that drive people to commit organized crimes to gain economic success, e.g. the anomic feelings result from not being able to achieve their goals from the means suggested by the society suggested by the strain of anomie of Merton (1938: 673) (Abadinsky, 2010); organized crime is an imported product by immigratory ethnic groups as suggested by the alien conspiracy theory (Chu, 2013b), cyber-criminals still behave normally and they are clear about their actual positions and how they are supposed to behave in the reality. This implies that cyber-criminals are just trying to getting rid of their real world 'unprivileged status' in the cyberspace by making use of its anonymity and intangibility, so they are just ordinary individuals that by no means can threaten the traditional organized crime groups in the real world, not even through perpetrating in the virtual world.
Structures & Organizations of Organized cybercrime
Under the diffuse and fluid environment of the cyberspace, it is difficult, if not impossible, for traditional organized crime groups to establish their spheres of influence in the cyber world, and there is also no indication that organized cybercriminal groups have the gang level of organization (Brenner, 2002). However, it does not mean that they are threatened by organized cybercrime groups; instead, the structures and organizations of cybercrime reveal that every individuals and groups become equal in the cyberspace, it can be a tool for organized crime groups to earn money or a source of income to them, but never somewhere for them to establish their power. Therefore, organized cyber criminal groups cannot make use of the cyberspace to threaten the traditional organized crime groups, while the latter cannot dominate the cyberspace through their hegemony in organized crimes in the real world. In the following, structures and organizations of organized cybercrimes and traditional organized crimes will be compared.
Hagan (1983) & Albanese (2004) have summarized the four most frequent identified traits of traditional organized crime groups: a continuing and organized hierarchy, the earning of profits from illegal activities, the use of violence and threats, and corruption and immunity (Hagan, 2002: 128). As compared with the above traits, organized cybercrime groups are rather loosely structured, more borderless, flexible (no force is needed, p. 28) and smaller in membership sizes (hierarchy not needed, automated p. 29; 35), as pointed out by Brenner (2002).
First of all, organized cybercriminal activities are loosely structured in the sense that people only know each other online can form into groups with an organizational structure working towards a common criminal goal (Choo, 2008). For instance, underground criminal groups like 'Shadowcrew' (USSS, 2004) and 'DrinkOrDie' (United States Department of Justice, 2007) were reported trafficking credit cards online and pirating software online respectively (Choo, 2008). In the cyberspace, knowing each other's real identities become unimportant, what matters are the trustworthiness built from collaboration of expertise, exchange of views, and mutual encouragement and support online (Brenner, 2002). Hence, the hierarchical model, which aims at ensuring loyalty as suggested by Valachi (Albanese, 2007), of traditional organized crime groups is insignificant, if not useless, in the cyber world.
Furthermore, organized cybercrimes are not confined by territorial boundary because of the borderlessness of the cyberspace, this contradicts directly with the terrestrial boundary, even the local and ethnic model of traditional organized crime groups. As what the Council of Europe said (2004: 49), 'the Internet is a truly global medium', information can be transferred throughout different countries and borders, and so do cybercrimes. Cybercriminals groups can commit online crimes harming victims of another countries, or forming cyber criminal groups with people locating at different countries. For example, 33 people in USA and Romania involve collectively in an international back fraud ring (Choo, 2008). In this case, the Romanians stole personal credit card information and the American-based confederates made fake credit cards to obtain millions dollars in cash (Choo, 2008). The transnational nature also renders ethnic model that based on cultural and ethnic ties with the function of mutual protection (Albanese, 2007) as meaningless, since the cyberspace is simply a constructed world that is not fixed by physical constraints like location, distance and ethnicity, and so on. Moreover, under the borderlessness of cybercrimes, the hierarchical model that aims at the controlling the diverse activities over a specific geographical area always becomes unnecessary.
At the same time, organized cybercrimes are also flexible per se in the virtual world, so the use of violence, which is one of the traits of organized crimes groups, is also needless. Violence is essential to traditional organized crime groups for intimidation and physical attacks; yet, organized cybercriminals only have to utilize their technical skills to commit crimes. As Brenner (2002) put it, physical strength is not significant, and the strength is in software and computer knowledge. At the same time, the hierarchy of traditional organized crime groups is vertical, fixed and rigid, while the cyberspace is lateral, diverse and fluid (Brenner, 2002). Moreover, organized crimes online are also different from that of the real world in that the former does not need a huge number of individuals getting involved, while the latter can rely on the automated techniques of computers (Brenner, 2008). When the automation can replace many human involvements, it is clear that the hierarchical organizational layer of traditional organized crimes can again be eliminated.
Figure Organization of CarderPlanet, based on the Mafia model (NICSA, u. d.)However, some argues that there is actually organized cybercriminal organization running like a mafia (McAfee, XXXX), and that is the 'CarderPlanet' in Russia, with Dmitry Golubov as the godfather. As shown in Figure 1, it has a hierarchical family structure like Mafia.
However, the hackers who are responsible for committing the crimes are actually far from the management team, they are simply employed as labour when needed, as pointed out by McAfee (XXXX). The organization is rather working towards a common economic goal that can fit in the enterprise model that does not emphasize on a centrally organized model based on personal relationships (Albanese, 2007).
Trends of Organized Cybercrime
On the one hand, an individual can commit cybercrimes like hacking, spreading of viruses, Trojan horses, and etc. alone; on the other hand, cybercrimes can be committed on an organized form, either by 'ordinary' people or traditional organized crime groups. According to McCusker (2006), organized cybercrime is more an adaptation of existing crime in the cyber world, rather than the creation of new type of crime. Concerning the four major types of cybercrimes discussed in this essay, i.e. cyber theft for extortion and fraud, music, video and software piracy, pornography, online drug trafficking and prostitution, there are evidences that both 'ordinary' organized cybercriminal groups and traditional organized crime groups carry out cyber-extortion and fraud, but the latter mainly relies on recruiting skilled computer workers, while the former is composed of people who are technically sophisticated. This is consistent with what the US Department of Justice (2006) that organized cybercriminal groups are mainly targeting victims via the Internet. At the same time, it is also obvious that the traditional organized crime groups are using the cyberspace as a tool to facilitate organized criminal activities in the physical world, e.g. music and video piracy and online drug trafficking and prostitution. Therefore, it is clear that there are no direct conflicts of interests among the online businesses of traditional organized crime groups and organized cybercriminal groups.
For the organized cybercriminal groups, they are mostly technically sophisticated individuals who form into groups, either through online forums and platforms or in the real world, they mainly make use of their computer knowledge and skills to steal personal information for fraud and extortion, i.e. by threatening to disclose the private information of companies' customers. For instance, the 'Russian Business Network' extorted as much a US$2000 a month as fees for 'protective Web services', as pointed out by Keizer (2008) (Choo, 2008: 280). At the same time, some of the international organized cybercrime groups are also service provider of online pornography (Choo, 2008). However, there are insufficient evidences at the moment that the organized cybercriminal groups are taking advantages of the virtual world to commit crimes in the physical world, so to speak, threatening the businesses of traditional organized crime groups in the real world. More importantly, although both groups are involved in the criminal activities online, the boundaries of the activities of both groups are so clear that they are not in conflicts.
There are indeed clues of traditional organized crime groups committing crimes with the help of technology, but they mostly are just enhancing the commission of crimes in the physical world by technology in the virtual world (McCusker, 2006). First, they exploit new opportunities online with the help of recruited IT specialists. For example, the Chinese triads implement modern forms of extortion, which is the denial of services to commercial sites (McAfee, XXXX); some traditional organized criminal organizations do the same extortion on online gambling and pornography websites using botnets, which is a network of individual computers infected with bot malware, the in Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia like, (Choo, 2007 & 2008; Evron, 2008; Schrank, 2007). At the same time, several members of the Gambino family were pleaded guilty of committing fraud related cybercrimes from 1996 to 2002 (McAfee, XXXX). Second, they also put 'new wine in old bottles' (Grabosky, 2001: 243) by committing crimes that they usually do in the real world online. For example, the Japanese Yakuzas continue expand their business of CD pirating online by counterfeiting CDs, DVDs and video games (McAfee, XXXX); the Gambino and Lucchese family operated illegal gambling online by using the website Topbetters.com (The United States Department of Justice, XXXX).
Even though both traditional organized crime groups and organized cybercriminal groups are stealing identities online for fraud and extorting companies for money gains, they do not run into conflicts with each others because of the lateral and evolving nature of the cyberspace. Therefore, both of them are in an equal position in the virtual world, even if they have the same target, it does not crowd out anyone of them. More importantly, there are so far no evidences of organized cybercriminal groups using the virtual world to facilitate or even commit physical organized crimes. So, there is no point to say that the two groups are in competition in the virtual world, not even the traditional groups being threatened.
With around 2.4 billion of Internet users up to 2012 (Internet World Stats, 2012), the Internet has become an attractive space for criminals to commit cybercrime. When the trend of cybercrimes becoming more organized in form (Council of Europe, 2004), it renders the discussion that whether organized cybercriminal organizations are able to threaten the traditional organized criminal groups like Mafia in the real world. However, it is clear that the former does not have the intention of challenging the latter, although they are both financially motivated when exploring the emergence and origin of both groups. Furthermore, the organizations and structures of the traditional organized crime groups cannot be imposed on the cyberspace because of the diffuse and fluid virtual environment that makes the natures of organized cybercrimes almost in complete opposite of that of the physical organized crimes. Last but not least, according to the trend of organized cybercrimes, there are no direct conflicts of interest between the two groups. Therefore, it is not persuasive to say that the organized cybercrime groups are threatening the traditional organized criminal organizations.