Policing the Cyberspace

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Internet, the magic buzz word in the modern world, is facilitating the emergence of new forms of human interaction in what is becoming to be known as cyberspace: a computer-generated public domain which has no territorial boundaries or physical attributes and is in perpetual use. Internet is undoubtedly one of the greatest technological advances of all time, but has a grey side too. Internet allows users to engage in electronic commerce, research, entertainment, communication and to find myriad information on just about anything imaginable. It not only provides great opportunities for those with good intentions, but is a haven for criminals as well.

Enabling people to exchange and gather information from an almost infinite number of sources around the world is one characteristic that makes the Internet such an attractive resource. There are essentially three inherent factors that make Internet such a wonderful place for bad guys. One, the Internet protects anonymity, two, it is constantly changing, and three, it is interactive.

Challenges Involved
The special abilities of cyberspace enable individuals, or ‘netizens’, to reach a potentially infinite number of people across a wide range of jurisdictions almost without censorship. The same qualities not only make many existing forms of governance harder to effect, but also create new situations which require altogether new forms of control. Consequently, the Internet, and particularly the cyberspace it creates, is not just a case of ‘old wine in new bottles’, or for that matter ‘new wine in new bottles’, rather many of its characteristics are so novel that the expression ‘new wine, but no bottles!’ becomes a more fitting description.

Traditional policing and peace keeping activities were performed on, and limited to, a determined (national or local) territory. The mind-set related to territorial boundaries of action and influence is still very strong.

Commentators on the regulation of cyberspace tend to argue on one of four positions, either new laws are needed, or existing laws need to be fixed, or both, or alternative forms of regulation need to be adopted. Regardless of perspective, nearly all have argued that some form of regulation is required. Most of the current debates discuss the application of a legal model of governance that is underpinned by a body of substantive law.

Who is currently policing the Internet?
Internet Users: The main group to be involved in policing the Internet is the Internet community itself. ‘Virtual community policing’ has yet to be formalised, but a number of examples have already occurred. In addition to the various complaint ‘hotlines’ and the development of software to screen out undesirable communications, are a few recorded attempts to organise Internet users. The Internet Rapid Response Team (IRRT) is a voluntary group which polices the Internet to remove offensive material. They came to prominence when an e-mail message advertising a collection of child pornography was received by thousands of Internet users all over the world.

Another Netizen group who actively ‘police cyberspace’ are the CyberAngels (, a 1000 strong organisation of net users who are also based, as their name suggests, along the Guardian Angel model. Divided into ‘Internet Safety Patrols’, they operate in the four main areas of the Internet: Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Usenet, WWW, America Online 206 David S Wall (AOL). Their function is to actively promote, preserve and protect netiquette which ‘is the collection of common rules of polite conduct that govern our use of the Internet’.

The Internet Service Providers: During the past six or so years, the prevailing mood towards the Internet has changed from wonderment to suspicion. The moral panic surrounding the Internet during the mid-1990s over the perceived threat of widespread pornography, and the subsequent threats of legal action, has forced Internet service providers to consider the possibility of controlling some of the activities that are taking place on their servers: especially the news discussion groups.

State Funded Non-Public-Police organisations: A number of governments, such as those in Singapore, China and Vietnam, have actively sought to control their citizen’s use of Internet, either by forcing users to register with the authorities or by directly controlling Internet traffic coming into their countries by becoming the Internet service providers. Within Europe, Germany has set up a regulatory agency, the Internet Content Task Force, and has passed new telecommunications laws requiring Internet service providers to provide a back door so that security forces can read user’s electronic mail if necessary. The Internet Content Task Force also has the power to force German Internet service providers to block access to certain materials, such as the Dutch site ‘xs4all’. The French Government has also passed legislation to set up a central regulatory agency. The US Government has taken a more formal stance by introducing legal measures and developing technological devices to regulate cyberspace in order to ‘protect the interest of US industry’.

State Funded Public Police Organisations: State funded public police organisations tend to be organised locally or nationally, depending upon the jurisdiction. In the United Kingdom, the public police have no formal mandate to police the virtual community, but it is nevertheless the case that numerous specialist groups of police officers monitor the Internet with regard to the areas of criminal law for which they are responsible. For example, a computer crime unit was established by the Metropolitan Police and a smaller, but a similar unit was set up by the Greater Manchester Police.

The Public Policing Model and Cybercrimes
It is almost certain that the incidence of cybercrimes will rise considerably as the population of cyberspace increases and the range of activities carried out there expands. This trend is confirmed by research carried out by the National Computing Centre, a private organisation, which revealed that the proportion of respondents reporting computer-related thefts rose by 60% during the two years between 1996 and 1998. However, even accounting for this increase, it is very likely that the major policing functions will continue to take place by the methods outlined above. Consequently, it is highly likely that the public police will not be involved in the ‘patrolling’ of cyberspace, or for that matter in the actual investigation of cybercrimes. It is however, likely to be the case, that the public police will still perform an important gate-keeping function by being the first point of call for members of the public against whom cybercrimes have been committed.

A study of the policing of computer crime by Thackeray in 1996 found that out of five countries studied, Britain was the least sophisticated in its approach. Certainly, the general ‘level of education and understanding of computer crime’ was far more advanced outside Britain. It would appear that the root of the problem is a cultural discord or dissonance between the existing police, occupational and operational cultures and the skills required to deal with cybercrimes. It was argued that British police forces have shied away from even attempting to investigate computer crimes, to the point that experienced detectives lose all interest in pursuing cases where computers are involved.

Steele has argued that ‘Not only are the police ill-equipped to deal with the growing and ever-changing criminal activity on the Internet, but most of the world either has no criminal laws for these crimes, or retains outdated ones that are in need of updating’. Whilst Steele perhaps overstates the role of the (state funded) police in the policing of the Internet, he nevertheless identifies the discord that exists.

Since its inception in the late 1830s, one of the dominant characteristics of the public police organisation has been its continued ability to adapt to the demands of modernity. Indeed, the very birth of the full-time police was motivated by the need to deal with the knock on effects of rapid industrialisation caused by technological advancement. However, what marks out cyberspace from previous technological eras is the disembedding of time, space and place. Even the development of the automobile, telephone, radio and more recently the fax relied upon physical rather than purely electronic technologies. Cyberspace, by contrast is unique in the sense that it is a virtual environment and the links within it are virtually instant and purely electronic, which means that there are no physical boundaries to temper criminal activities.

There are two different sets of action patterns through which initial efforts to curb cyber crimes are made, the first of these pattern is regulation, the second being conscious design of large socio-technical infrastructure systems. Regulatory action is normally taken at the immediate level of concern. It is addressed at the symptoms of a disease, and not at its roots. European data protection legislation attempts to outlaw certain types of misuse of information, instead of looking for other levels of intervention. It is seldom asked whether it would not be better to let information flow freely, tolerating its misuse while neutralising by other means an adverse consequence of such a free flow of information. A more promising approach is rational and purposeful design of information infrastructures. Some infrastructures may indeed be designed in a way such as to prevent misuse, or to restrict their use to determined purposes only. 

Steele, Jim et al. (2007), Cyber Crime Investigations: Bridging the Gaps Between Security Professionals, Law Enforcement, and Prosecutors, Syngress: Rockland.
Thackeray, Gail (1996), “A study on policing computer crime”, USA
Barlow, John Perry, “Selling wine without bottles: the economy of mind on the global net”,
Denning, Dorothy, (1990), “Concerning Hackers Who Break into Computer Systems”, A Presentation at the 13th National Computer Security Conference, Washington D.C.
Wall S David (1998), “Catching Cybercrimnals: Policing the Internet”, International Review of Law, Computers & Technology, Volume 12.
Brian D.Loader (ed) (1997), The Governance of Cyberspace, Politics, technology and global restructuring, London and New York: Routledge.
Singh, Y.K. (2005), Cyber Crime and Law, New Delhi: Shree.

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