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Issue 478, 4 March 2002

Cybercrime how real is it?

We're regularly assailed by media panic over fraud, copyright issues, hacking, pornography and hate material. The essays in Crime and the Internet, edited by law lecturer Dr David Wall, look at each of these issues in depth, and provide a clear voice of reason amid the more frenzied reportage.

The essayists show the internet is neither a great panacea nor the sum of all our fears. While there is crime and disorder online, it is not quite the stateless, lawless void often depicted. Law enforcement and governments still struggle to keep pace with technology, but there are signs of developing foresight into future criminal trends.

Dr Wall himself writes: "The internet is one of the greatest sensations of recent times. It has become a symbol of our ingenuity and offers humankind an awesome array of benefits. However, the thrill of these benefits has been accompanied by public fears about the potential scale of criminal opportunities that can arise... Yet, our practical experience of the internet is that few of these fears have actually been realised."

One essay focuses on hackers and 'hacktivism' – a loose term coined to describe computer hacking for ethical or political means. It shows how groups loosely held together by their solidarity to hacker ethics in the 1970s and 1980s have fragmented into three distinct strands. First, the traditional hacker/cracker who attacks computer systems as an intellectual exercise or to assert their own technical prowess. Then the 'microserfs' – the former anti-establishment hackers whose knowledge gained them employment with major corporations. Finally, the hacktivist who targets and attacks key systems as a means of political protest.

The tools employed by the hacktivist range from email 'bombs' crashing mailboxes through to viruses and denial of service attacks. The vulnerabilities of major organisations are highlighted in a non-alarmist way, showing how cyber-terrorism may pose genuine socio-economic dangers. The chapter is particularly compelling in the light of recent world events, proving that it is not merely conventional forms of terrorism against which we must be vigilant.

Other excellent essays examine telecommunication fraud, real – as opposed to perceived – risks in cyberspace, and the complexities of balancing child protection with education and freedom of speech.

Crime and the Internet, edited by David Wall, is published by Routledge.

(Review by University web designer Richard Ashby.)

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