Saturday, 23 February 2013

'Uppity Civilians' and 'Cyber Vigilantes': The Role of the General Public in Policing Cyber Crime

The month The Differential Association looked at an article from Laura Huey, Johnny Nhan and Ryan Broll, which explored the topic of cyber crime. The tantalisingly new frontier of the world wide web has delivered, Janus-like, both a communications and technological marvel of our time, as well as an unwieldy virtual space in which crime flourishes unchecked and unpoliced. For example, the article cites figures that only one in 6,500 online crimes are reported to the police, with most minor frauds drawing negligible actions from the authorities.

The costs of cyber crime are notoriously difficult to precisely state, as a recent University of Cambridge study has suggested. Previous estimates ranging in the tens of billions have been criticised as wildly inflated. The Cambridge research concluded that the costs of a state's antivirus software can often impose a greater financial burden on the nation's individuals than the direct costs of fraudulent internet schemes.

Huey et al argue that these costs of policing the internet impose onerous burdens on law enforcement, further suggesting that the forms which traditional policing takes are unsuited to a frontier which has no geography and to which we have yet to fully adapt. Traditional policing is built on a framework of geography, they write that forces are organised by divisions, by local policing areas, and by the individual's 'beat', and that such a framework struggles to cope with virtual space. They argue that the time and resources required for thorough policing of the Internet are beyond the scope of budgetary limits.

One of the most emotively charged areas of cyber crime, as well as the area that most often attracts resources, is that of child pornography and online grooming. This has been an area of persistent concern in recent decades. Rapid sophistication of our everyday technology has created uncertainty and anxiety as we run to get to grips with how our world has changed. Measures to combat child sex abuse have proliferated, such as the 2002 Sex Offenders Act, England and Wales, which explicitly criminalised for the first time the act of grooming a young person via internet communications. The Metropolitan Police in London, for example, have a covert Internet surveillance unit comprising over 50 investigators. Officers pose online as young children and a crime triggers an instant response from the team. This team was founded after the realisation by the Met that they would have to change how they operated, embracing pro-active targeting.

In this article, Huey et al have explored the work of "voluntary associations of citizens engaged in proactive policing on the Internet". These include online communities targeting various chat forums and websites, using their computer skills and time to identify and track criminal offenders. The article looks, in particular, at volunteer communities established to disrupt and deter the online activity of paedophiles. Members pose as children on chat forums, in an attempt to retrieve and pass identifying information along to the police. This kind of activity has been defined as 'civilian policing'.

The DA expressed wonder at the varying levels of evidence such activity would provide. The article tells us that many of these volunteers participate in training to ensure any evidence collected is legally admissible. While such training is crucial and without it the volunteers’ activity would be self-defeating, members wondered about how legally robust this training is. One group referred to in the article had a record of dozens of arrests and a 100 per cent conviction rate. However, once again acknowledging the transnational nature of the Internet, it would be interesting to have some idea of how this system worked across different legal jurisdictions.

The DA wondered whether such 'civilian policing' collectives were akin to David Garland’s concept of adaptive approaches to crime, described in Culture of Control as “usually developed by means of cumulative, low-visibility administrative decisions, rather than as announced policies subject to political or public debate”.

Garland's responsibilization strategy is defined as “an enhanced network of a more or less directed, more or less informal crime control, complementing and extending the formal controls of the criminal justice state”.  The police seek to build alliances with citizens to instil a sense of responsibility for crime-fighting, and to diffuse the onus of policing, such strategies include the now ubiquitous Neighbourhood Watch schemes. The difficulty emerges in trying to instil a sense of responsibility for something always previously assumed to be a solely state-activated activity. Responsibilization, according to Garland, is the shedding of state sovereignty, and an attempt at what Foucault called ‘governmentality’, which involves the shaping and enlisting of others to suit and work towards government policies.

The research methodology used by Huey et al incorporates nodal governance theory, this is an elaboration of network theory which looks at how a variety of actors interact to govern the systems they inhabit. It is a way of capturing the complex process of governance by incorporating all of the relevant actors. In this article, the four sets of actors are collectively referred to as nodal clusters: government, law enforcement, private industry and the general public.

The authors collected responses from over 200 volunteers engaged in 'civilian policing'; we were disappointed that there was only one full-length interview conducted with these volunteers, and it is suggested that further interviews would provide greater insight. However, four police officers were interviewed which adds a particularly welcome viewpoint on the issue.

The survey asked volunteers to provide their motive for involvement. The most common motive cited was television or the media, many of which were linked to the US television show 'To Catch a Predator'. This was usually accompanied with a desire to help others and reasons under the general category of 'justice', while a smaller minority reported that either they or someone they knew had previously been a victim of abuse.

The authors cite one response as typical: "Combating online predators takes HOURS of sitting at a computer screen.  There just isn’t enough manpower Colonel.  There are specialized units out there, but it’s still a number’s game.  Hundreds of law enforcement versus thousands of predators". This language seemed indicative of a personal narrative of heroism, a black and white crusade, draped in language of North American law enforcement culture and pop culture. Yet another example likened the internet chat scene to the Wild West.

The monsterisation of sex offenders was also very evident, for example among parents who expressed fears for their children, "I went and looked at my 13 year-old daughter peacefully sleeping and decided I needed to do something to stop these demons". Some websites also choose to herald their role in the apprehension of an offender with announcements such as the following: "We are very happy that these two subhuman individuals…". The demonisation of sex offenders, especially those who offend against children, is a component of the late-modern escalation of concern about the issue, previously referred to. In an article by Lieb et al, about post-conviction controls for sex offenders, they cite research which suggests that in the US at least five murders have occurred as a result of persons convicted of sex offences being found and tracked via the use of an online register.

The DA has previously discussed an article by Huey, which explored the appeal of exhibits of the macabre. In Crime Behind the Glass Huey looked at the popular appeal of cultural fixtures, such as the Jack the Ripper walking tour in London, or the Kriminalmuseum in Vienna which she looked at in some detail, and posed questions about the appeal of such cultural phenomena. The DA suggested that there is an overlap with the current article in relation to the appeal of the horrific. The television show mentioned, 'To Catch a Predator', is one example of popular entertained structured around the premise that the public are fascinated by and want to watch entertainment shows based on crime. The step of going further, and actively participating in the apprehension of a criminal chimes perfectly with the voyeurism that Huey previously identified as comprising an inevitable component of our natures.

The 'civilian policing' volunteers in the article comprise a surprising number of highly-skilled members. The organisations too often have a rigid structure and vetting procedure for members, and the most highly valued roles of decoy and verifier are difficult to attain. Regular contact is mandatory, and some of the groups use Facebook ‘clean-up’ operations as a tool to prove a member's mettle. Estimates suggest that such activity has resulted in the removal of 13,000 profiles of known sex offenders from Facebook. The DA wondered whether this was a self-defeating move with negative impacts on both offender reintegration and rehabilitation, as well as encouraging the creation of profiles which provided false information of identity. We also found ourselves drawn into a discussion of the responsibilities of companies who run social-networking websites.

The inclusion of police interviews really enriched the data. The attitudes of the police were fascinating, ranging from positive and hopeful about engagement in structured partnerships to the departments which refused to work with the groups. Many of these police departments remained fearful for members' safety, and aware of the problematic legal issues, while some felt the work was something they could do themselves. In reference to this last point, the authors mention the well-researched police subculture which can include lack of trust in outsiders. Many of the dubious police departments simply want tips and information and many of the larger 'civilian policing' groups hand over all information without any expectations of involvement, this 'Information First' police is in great contrast to those groups who have co-operated in sting operations targeted at persons met online.

The authors suggest that the greatest resources the members have are time and commitment. They write that 'civilian policing' seems to be aimed at creating ‘digitally defensible spaces’, transforming virtual spaces into spaces that more closely resemble physical spaces in an attempt to increase the accountability of the virtual world, something which requires members to ‘buy in’ as security stakeholders. Nhan and Huey have previously written that “structural and cultural limitations upon traditional policing agencies have resulted in a security deficit in the online world”. They argue that improving this situation does not involve recruiting more specialised police or resources, rather it requires a collaborative effort, due to the distributive nature of the internet. They recommend the greater utilisation of the nodal cluster of the general public, contending that this is a resource which can effectively be used to tackle cyber crime. They also recommend enhanced legal liability training for such groups, as well as the more widespread use of 'Information First' schemes which see all information passed along to law enforcement agencies.

This article provides a fascinating glimpse into the activities of citizens who take it upon themselves to dedicate time to 'civilian policing'. While this was an area of which the DA had known very little before, Huey et al’s article certainly provided for some engaging and intriguing debate. It will be most interesting to watch the progress of research in this area.

This month's blog was written by Colette Barry and Lynsey Black.

The views expressed herein are those of the authors' alone. 

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