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Cybercrime. Old wine in new bottles?

Written by Mateusz Chrobok | Feb 16, 2021 5:11:06 PM

Cybercrime is still a relatively new phenomenon that justice officials and crime scholars themselves have not yet been able to adapt to. The police are still incapable of effectively persecuting cybercriminals with the same level of operability and effectiveness that they have achieved in the analog world.

Likewise, criminal laws and prevention policies are out of date when it comes to fighting cybercrime, making the digital world still a "lawless place”.

From an academic and scientific point of view, criminologists and crime analysts are not yet capable of creating their own, specific theories for virtual crime. For the time being, we have no specific references or theoretical frameworks to help us understand cybercrime. Some authors try to "stretch" the criminological theories of the analog world as much as possible, which isn't always appropriate, since these theories were generated to explain a type of crime that moves in other, very different dimensions.

However, these authors believe that the criminal, and therefore the crime, is still the same, even if it takes place in another context, no matter how different this context may be. This is what Peter N. Grabosky suggests when referring to cybercrime as the same old wine in new bottles. With this metaphor, Grabosky presents an interesting subject for debate, offering up two possibilities in relation to cybercrime.

On the one hand, we can consider cybercrime to be an essentially new type of crime for which the criminological theories applicable to crime in a physical space are not valid. One the other hand, cybercrime could be considered a different phenomenon, but for which the same theories and the same instruments used against crime in the physical space are still valid.

To try to shed some light on this debate, we need to identify some of the differentiating aspects or elements between virtual crime and crime that occurs in a physical space.


First, we can talk about two basic dimensions that very clearly differentiate the reality of the physical world from the reality of virtual space, namely distance and time. Regarding the first dimension, distance, it is one of the most studied in the criminological field. In fact, there is a whole school of thought called “Journey to Crime” that analyzes the level of movements used by criminals to commit their crimes. In the physical space, criminals have to travel to reach their criminal targets, which means moving from one place to another from a spatial point of view. Criminals must move to seek out their targets, get closer to them to commit the crime, and then move away to avoid being caught.

This happens because in the physical world there are distances, physical spaces through which we can move between different places, there are points that are close together and others that are far away, and there are also geographical borders or limitations, as well as physical obstacles that must be overcome. All of these conditioning factors influence criminal activity, and as such studies with the journey to crime approach indicate that criminals tend to travel very little to commit their crimes, since movement requires effort.

For example, in the case of sexual offenders, research analyzing their movements shows that they usually don't travel more than 1.5 miles to commit their assaults. It also tells us that more instrumental crimes, such as robberies, involve a higher level of movement, since criminals have to travel greater distances to access the criminal objectives they're pursuing. Finding a victim to commit a sexual assault requires less travel than finding bank branches to rob. Criminals prefer to commit their crime in known places, in areas they control, where they know where to find potential victims or where they have to go to flee. Having to travel longer distances means losing control over these aspects, which affects their safety and therefore the risk of being arrested.

A traditional criminological theory that addresses the dimension of distance is Brantingham and Brantingham's Crime Pattern Theory (1991). According to this theory, criminals commit their crimes and choose their targets in the same place where they carry out their everyday activities. On their commute from home to work or to a place of recreation, they observe and choose the places and targets of their attack. Therefore, their "criminal geographical area" isn't necessarily very separate from their "living geographical area". In the same places where they live, they also carry out their criminal activity.

None of this exists in the virtual world, distance isn't a dimension in cyberspace, which means that criminals have a series of advantages when it comes to committing their crimes: they can access any target from anywhere in the world, they don't have to physically travel or overcome any type of obstacles. A cybercriminal in Madrid can attack an Indonesian bank without having to leave their living room, paying no attention to borders or any other physical impediment. If they were discovered during or after the theft, a "traditional" chase between thief and police would obviously be unimaginable, unlike those that come to mind with a robbery that takes place in a physical space. This allows us to not only visualize the advantages for cybercriminals, but also the disadvantages for the police, as we've previously alluded to.


Talking about distance inevitably leads us to talk about another basic dimension of physical space: time. Movement implies distance between two places, but also time required to travel that distance. Continuing with the previous example, a thief in Madrid who wanted to rob a bank in Indonesia would need a certain amount of time to reach their target. Likewise, they would need time to commit the robbery and then there's the time needed to flee to safety. These amounts of time are, after all, opportunities for the thief to be discovered, since they're moments in which the criminal is exposed and at risk. These conditions are what make criminals always try to act as quickly as possible, selecting crimes that can be executed quickly and using means of escape that allow them to reach safety in the shortest amount of time possible.

But none of this happens in the virtual world. Here, travel times don't exist as such, everything is instantaneous and happens immediately. In turn, this immediacy coexists with absolute timelessness. For example, a video can make its way around the internet instantly, reaching thousands of places in a matter of seconds. But at the same time, this video that is moving around the web today may reappear ten years from now and seem as current as if it had just been uploaded at that very moment. In other words, content doesn't disappear over time, it doesn't expire or age as we understand these concepts in the physical world. Moving in a context where time loses its meaning also has great advantages for the offender, since their exposure is lower, which reduces the risk of being discovered or interrupted while committing their crime.

In relation to security, the criminal in the physical world must also act with other time-related factors in mind, looking for moment in which their activity may go unnoticed or be invisible to possible witnesses. That's why it's easier for them to rob a factory at night, when no one is working, or to rob a house in the morning, when its occupants are out.

Sometimes, the criminal has to take into account the time factor not because of security reasons, but because of access to potential targets. Certain moments in time can allow us to find better possibilities or targets for committing a crime. For example, during "rush hour", it's easier to steal wallets at a train station, due to the crowds of people that form. Also, some dates, such as the Christmas season or in summer, cause the prevalence of certain types of crimes to increase.

In the virtual world, these time-related aspects don't work in the same way, cybercriminals don't have to worry about the same things as criminals in the physical world. Contrary to the previous example, a cybercriminal may actually try to go unnoticed by attacking a factory during its busiest time and therefore with a greater number of workers inside. The visibility dimension and its relationship with the moment in time are different in both spaces.

As we can see, the dimensions that govern the physical world are very different from those that govern cyberspace, so there is no choice but to design, create and develop specific theories and explanatory models of cybercrime. Some theories of physical space may be useful to a certain extent, but these theories should not be "stretched" or "twisted" to fit the virtual context, but instead used to make new and specific theories to address this new criminal context.

Following Grabosky's metaphor, we won't always have the same old wine in new bottles, sometimes we'll have to resort to new vintages that allow us to achieve a totally new wine.