We are a mixed group of Dublin based criminology PhD students, lecturers and criminal justice practitioners, who all share a zest for criminology and critical conversation.
We meet once a month to cast our criminological gaze on a variety of books, articles and publications.
Anyone interested in coming along feel free to drop us a line, everyone is welcome!
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.
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
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'.
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
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.