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Crime and Media in the Digital Age: An Analysis of Cybercrime in the UK.

 The main reason for the phenomenal success of the internet is in its simplicity. The transmission of information down a telephone line and the use of a ‘modem’ to translate signals enabled anyone with a ‘landline’ to connect to the network. Data from Ofcom (2004) reveals that in 2002 there were 35 million fixed residential and business telephone lines in the UK. In 2015, 66 percent of the adult population of the UK owned a smartphone (Ofcom: 2015).

The advent of the internet and progression of digital technologies has had many positive benefits transforming the way we live and work and had a significant impact on commercial ventures. It is worth noting that for the millennials, the generation who came of age in the new millennium, the change has not been noticeable as they have grown up using this technology in their everyday lives and throughout their education. A report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) states: “In 2015, 86 percent of households in Great Britain (22.5 million) had internet access, up from 57 percent in 2006… when directly comparable records began” (2015). Some of the most common uses of the internet include:

  • Email – correspondence that may have previously have taken days has become instant online. Figures from the BBC calculate: “Two million e-mails are sent every minute in the UK. That is almost three billion each day” (Limberg: 2008).
  • Banking and shopping – The UK spent £6.31 billion with the online shopping site Amazon in 2015 (Spanier: 2016).
  • Social networking – We are able to communicate and keep in touch with friends and old classmates globally. The ONS reports: “Social networking was used by 61 percent of adults, and of those, 79 percent did so every day or almost every day” (2015).
  • Dating – Studies by the Online Dating Association show that 27 percent of new relationships begin through online dating sites or mobile apps. The value of the online dating market in the UK was £165 million in 2013 (Magrina: 2015).
  • Information searches – From the origin of the universe to the life-cycle of a moth, weather forecasts, maps, recipes, your nearest chemist shop, someone has probably written something about it.

As the internet has become an integral part of our lives in work and socially, this has provided new opportunities for criminals. Crime committed by use of the internet is known as cybercrime. It is especially insidious as Marsh and Melville explain: “…the ‘virtual offender’ is able to enter the victim’s personal space… This crime has none of the conventional boundaries that we associate with criminal behaviour – victim and perpetrator can be in different cities, countries or continents” (2009:154).

In their analysis of cybercrime, McGuire and Dowling define cybercrime in two categories: “Cyber-dependent crimes are offences that can only be committed by using a computer, computer networks, or other form of ICT” (2013: 5). These include the use of malicious software to spread viruses and hacking into business and personal computers. “Cyber-enabled crimes are traditional crimes that are increased in their scale or reach by the use of computers, computer networks or other ICT. Unlike cyber-dependent crimes, they can still be committed without the use of ICT” (2013:5). Many ‘traditional’ forms of crime have a cyber equivalent. Theft includes personal information and data leading to identity theft. Fraud incorporates online scams and ‘phishing’ emails.

Crime stories are newsworthy and serve as a commodity in the media industries to increase profit. Every day, television and internet news bulletins and newspaper headlines draw our attention to crime stories. Chibnall observes: “Newspapers and television do not merely monitor the events of the real world; they construct representations and accounts of reality which are shaped by the constraints imposed upon them” (1977: ix).  Media coverage will induce many emotional responses from the audience depending on the type and severity of crime that has been committed. Murder and violent crime for example may evoke shock, sadness, anger, despair and fear. As a civilised society we want the perpetrators to be caught and punished appropriately so we follow the updates on these stories hoping that justice will be served. Chibnall adds: “Crime news may serve as a focus for the articulation of shared morality and communal sentiments. A chance not simply to speak to the community but to speak for the community, against all that the criminal outsider represents” (1977: x).

Fascination with crime permeates into our popular culture. Films, books, television dramas, video games and music abound with crime themes. Our interest in crime is not a modern phenomenon, as Jewkes observes: “Students and researchers of both criminology and media studies have sought to understand the connections between media and crime for well over a century” (2005:3). From the safety of our homes we can be entertained with the thrilling dichotomy between good and evil.

It is a subject of scholarly debate whether crime stories, real or imaginary, have any effect on criminal behaviour. An early USA study in 1928, the pre-television era, looked at the effects on attitudes, behaviour and emotions of young people who watched films with a crime theme. Marsh and Melville summarise: “As with many later studies the findings were inconclusive with no consistent relationship found between cinema attendance and criminal behaviour” (2009:16). Jewkes expands that the influence of the media on an audience’s behaviour and opinions may be interpreted positively or negatively depending on the viewpoint of the source information. In looking for links between crime and media content there are opposing views, “…ranging from the idea that the media industry is responsible for much of the crime that blights our society, to the idea that media perform a public service in educating us about crime and thus aid crime prevention” (2005:36).

Serious crime is quite rare in the UK so when it occurs its significance as news of national importance will ensure it receives a prominent position in the headlines.  Williams and Dickinson’s study in to the fear of crime summarises: “Crime reporting in the news media has been a focus of concern because of the assumption that the salience given to certain types of crime, notably those involving sex or violence, creates a distorted picture of reality which is reflected in the beliefs of news consumers” (1993: 33). To contextualise this, Williams and Dickinson cite Ditton and Duffy’s 1983 analysis of crime reports from three Scottish newspapers. Crime stories represented 6.5 percent of the total news with just under half (45.8%) involving violence or sexual crimes. “These proportions were compared to police statistics that show just 2.4 per cent of crime in the locality to be violent and/or sexual” (1993:35).

Stories on cybercrime have become a daily occurrence in the national media. This is an indication of the extent of the problem. Historically it was difficult to assess the number of cybercrimes committed and the cost to individuals and businesses. This was due to the UK having no central authority recording the statistics of cybercrime. Also within UK legislation, when reporting and prosecuting a crime, there is no distinction made between cyber and traditional crime. A third factor was that victims of online banking fraud were previously told by police to report the crime to their bank instead, with the bank deciding whether to report the offence to the police or not. Recognising the seriousness of online fraud, which has no regard for geographical boundaries, a succession of UK government programmes has been introduced to make changes to the way online fraud and cybercrime is reported. Several units have been created, merged with other units, been renamed and rebranded with similar aims and objectives to the previous units. It is a slow and ongoing process.

Based on the recommendations of the National Fraud Review in 2006, the National Fraud Authority (NFA), was established by the Home Office in 2008. The three objectives of the NFA were; awareness, enforcement and prevention of fraud (NFA: 2011). However, the NFA closed in March 2014. The Police Central e-Crime Unit (PCeU) was also set up in 2008 with the aim of creating a central point to report all online fraud to co-ordinate law enforcement and improve police response to victims. This unit is also now out of service. Ironically, the name PCeU has become better known as a computer virus, a ransomware infection, which displays a bogus notification to trick the user into thinking their computer screen has been locked by the police. The claim is that: “The operating system or internet browser is locked due to a violation of laws, which may include distributing and visiting illegal pornography, such as child pornography, and zoofila, among other false claims” (Doyle: 2015). The user is required to pay a ‘fine’ to unlock their computer.

In 2009, the National Fraud Reporting Centre was renamed Action Fraud. This Home Office agency enables fraud and cybercrime to be reported online, by telephone, through police channels and by businesses. In 2010 the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) was created and overseen by the City of London Police (under the now defunct NFA). Their aims were to harvest information on fraud, analyse the fraud reports and use the intelligence to support law enforcement (NFIB: 2010: 6).  In 2010 a new government agency, the National Crime Agency (NCA) was created. In 2014, Action Fraud partnered with the NFIB and the two agencies now work together under the NCA to gather and collate cybercrime and fraud statistics. Within all of this bureaucratic renaming and reshuffling the true cost and extent of cybercrime was obscured.

The most reliable cybercrime statistics emerged in a 2011 Cabinet Office report by Detica in partnership with the Office of Cyber Security and Information. The cost of cybercrime to the UK was calculated at £27bn per annum (2011: 3). This is broken down into three sections.

  • Cost to the government: £2.2bn per annum. Comprising of tax fraud, benefits fraud, pension fraud and NHS fraud (2011: 19).
  • Cost to citizens: £3.1bn per annum. This is further broken down into £1.7bn in identity theft, £1.4bn in online scams and £30m in fake anti-virus software and scareware (2011: 18).
  • Cost to businesses: £21bn per annum. The main areas of crime include £9.2bn from IP theft, £7.6bn from industrial espionage, £2.2bn from extortion, £1.3bn from direct online theft and £1bn from loss or theft of customer data 2011: 19).

In October 2015, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) included cybercrime and fraud offences in their figures for the first time. As a result, a true representation of the numbers of cybercrimes committed in England and Wales became available. In a summary of the findings by the Daily Telegraph, correspondent Leon Watson stated:

“There were 5.1 million estimated cyber crimes and frauds last year…plus 2.5 million offences under the Computer Misuse Act – hacking, identity theft, malware, and so on. Add these to the 6.5 million crimes recorded in the year to the end of June by the long-running Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW) and you get a whacking 14.1 million total” (2015).

In comparing statistics with the previous year, the crime figures appear to have increased 107 percent. However, these cybercrimes already existed, they were just not monitored. In separate research by the charity Victim Support, the extent of fraud may be worse. Director Lucy Hastings states: “We know that the vast majority of fraud goes unreported – largely because victims are too embarrassed to come forward, or are afraid of ridicule” (Watson: 2015).

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said that the UK will be increasing the budget towards surveillance and cybercrime by almost £2bn (Burgess: 2015). This is to prevent and respond to any cyberattacks from terrorists. It was also announced that a new National Cyber Centre at GCHQ would be established in 2016.

As new technologies become available, the cyber-criminals are very quickly on the scene with new methods of extortion and scams. Law enforcement agencies are currently at a disadvantage. The first challenge will be in finding the cyber-criminal who is likely to be hiding their identity behind layers of encryption on the ‘Darknet’. The next problem will be in bringing charges against the cyber-criminal who may be in a different country. Gercke observes: “Without the international harmonization of national criminal legal provisions, the fight against transnational cybercrime will run into serious difficulties, due to inconsistent or incompatible national legislations” (2012:83). The Serious Crime Act 2015, and amendments to the Computer Misuse Act 1990 have added substantial penalties including life imprisonment for unlawful acts which cause damage to welfare or security.

An alternative solution to reducing cybercrime would be in making the networks more secure particularly in the business and banking sectors. Stewart James is sceptical: “Taking preventative measures can be seen as an unnecessary cost, business distraction and barrier to business when balanced against the risk of cyber crime occurring and its remedial costs” (2015). The cost of the extra security to businesses is surely worth it as it would improve their brand image and assure customers peace of mind.

References:

LIMBERG, Ben 2008.  ‘E-mail is Ruining My Life’. BBC.co.uk [online]. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/7281707.stm [accessed 7 March 2016].

BURGESS, Matt. 2015. ‘UK Will Launch Cyberattacks Against Terrorists, Chancellor Says’. Wired.co.uk [online]. Available at: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2015-11/17/cybersecurity-budget-double-uk-surveillance-paris [accessed 7 March 2016].

CABINET OFFICE: 2011. The Cost of Cyber Crime. A Detica Report in Partnership with the Office of Cyber Security and Information in the Cabinet Office [online]. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/60943/the-cost-of-cyber-crime-full-report.pdf [accessed 6 March 2016].

CHIBNALL, Steve. 1977. Law-and-Order News: An analysis of crime reporting in the British Press. Abingdon: Tavistock Publications.

DOYLE, Sean. 2015. ‘How to remove Police Central e-crime Unit (Virus Removal)’. Botcrawl.com [online]. Available at: http://botcrawl.com/how-to-remove-the-police-central-e-crime-unit-ransomware-virus-metropolitan-police-crime-directorate-malware/ [accessed 5 March 2016].

GERCKE, Mark. 2012. ‘Understanding Cybercrime: Phenomena, Challenges and Legal Responses’. ITU.int [online]. Available at: https://www.sbs.ox.ac.uk/cybersecurity-capacity/system/files/CybcrimeE.pdf [accessed 7 March 2016].

JAMES, Stewart. 2015.’Can Legislation Stop Cyber Crime?’ Computer Weekly.com [online]. Available at: http://www.computerweekly.com/opinion/Can-legislation-stop-cyber-crime [accessed 7 March 2016].

JEWKES, Yvonne.2005. Media and Crime. London: Sage.

MAGRINA, Elena. 2015. ‘Dating on the Move: Opportunities and challenges for the online dating industry’ Online Dating Association [online]. Available at: http://www.onlinedatingassociation.org.uk/resources/research/ [accessed 7 February 2016].

MARSH, Ian and Gaynor MELVILLE. 2009. Crime, Justice and the Media. Abingdon: Routledge.

MCGUIRE, Mike and Samantha DOWLING. 2013. ‘Cyber crime: A review of the evidence. Research Report 75’. Home Office [online]. Available at:  https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/246749/horr75-summary.pdf [accessed 10 February 2016].

NATIONAL FRAUD AUTHORITY. 2011. ‘Fighting Fraud Together: Programme of Activity’ Gov.UK [online]. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/118502/fighting-fraud-together-activity.pdf [accessed 5 March 2016].

NATIONAL FRAUD INTELLIGENCE BUREAU. 2010. ‘’General Guide to the NFIB: Information for Data Providers and the Public’. City of London Police [online]. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/118482/general-guide-nfib.pdf [accessed 5 March 2016].

OFCOM. ORG. 2004. ‘Fixed Telecoms Market Information Update (May 2004)’.  Ofcom [online].

Available at:http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/market-data-research/other/telecoms-research/fix_t_mkt_info/ [accessed 6 February 2016].

OFCOM.ORG. 2015. ‘Facts and Figures’. Ofcom [online]. Available at: http://media.ofcom.org.uk/facts/ [accessed 6 February 2016].

OFFICE FOR NATIONAL STATISTICS. 2015. ‘Statistical bulletin: Internet Access – Households and Individuals 2015’. ONS [online]. Available at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/rdit2/internet-access—households-and-individuals/2015/stb-ia-2015.html [accessed 8 February 2016].

SPANIER, Gideon. 2016. ‘Amazon UK’s annual sales hit £6.3 billion’. Campaign [online]. Available at: http://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/amazon-uks-annual-sales-hit-63-billion/1381647 [accessed 7 February 2016].

WATSON, Leon. 2015. ‘Crime soars 107% as cyber offences included for the first time – as it happened’. The Telegraph 15 October [online]. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/11932670/Cyber-crime-fuels-70-jump-in-crime-levels.html [accessed 5 March 2016].

WILLIAMS, Paul and Julie DICKINSON. 1993. ‘Fear of Crime: Read all about it? The Relationship between Newspaper Crime Reporting and Fear of Crime’. British Journal of Criminology, 33(1), 33-56.

 

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