Policing a digital world

Policing a digital world

Computers have been around for decades and since the 1970s so has digital crime. What began as tinkering and searching for vulnerabilities, evolved into organised crime and serious threats to our interconnected world: law enforcement was forced to change.

Law enforcement has been confronted with a form of crime difficult for them to keep track of over the last decades. Cyberspace creates different offenders because of the lack of location proximity, the use of technology and the relative anonymity. Gone are the days when the usual suspects were evident and lived around the corner. Proximity of the offender to the victim or goal is no longer needed and therefore traditional surveillance and investigatory methods no longer suffice. This change in the offender landscape pushes law enforcement agencies to change their ways as well. Patrolling the streets has changed into surveilling social media. Investigation of trace evidence on the physical crime scene has transformed into finding evidence in manipulation of bits and bytes in computers, networks and telephones. Without these changes, law enforcement would not be able to keep up with cybercriminals. But it is not only cybercrime that is investigated digitally by law enforcement.

Digital investigation

Every crime has a digital component or can be in part investigated with the help of computers and the Internet. With knowledge about location and modus operandi of a wave of breaking and entering incidents, the suspects’ most likely place of residence can be found. This is called geographical profiling. Furthermore, computers can help investigators from different locations share patterns and crime sprees by the same (group of) suspects so they can be identified as such. Digital forensics can be used to solve a wide variety of crimes, including murder and terrorist activity.

Deterrence vs. investigation

Because of the different offender involved and the amount of crimes committed with the help of digital means, investigatory methods have changed. However, it is not always possible to find every, offender especially in the digital world. This means that police need means to deter crime as well as investigating crime.

The Dutch high tech crime unit has developed new ways of deterring crime. They sent an email to all vendors of a main component of GHB, namely GBL. Although the substance GBL is not entirely illegal in itself, it is mainly used as the core ingredient for GHB, which is an illegal drug. The email from the Dutch police stated that they know that GBL is the main substance used in manufacturing GHB and they would advice them to no longer offer it via their websites. The fact that the police took an interest and indicated that they would otherwise start an investigation was enough for the majority of vendors to stop selling the substance to the Dutch market. The one vendor that refused was investigated and convicted.

Digital law enforcement

The possibilities for criminals may be endless in cyberspace but law enforcement is adapting rapidly and making use of all that computers have to offer to the investigative process. Big data analytics, geographical profiling, digital forensics, intelligence led policing, Internet investigations and more. Computers have enabled new methods that are now part of the law enforcement toolkit. This has yet to become the default everywhere but that will happen in the coming years. The real challenge that has to be tackled lies in encouraging international collaboration between different law enforcement agencies and other parties involved in governing the Internet and law and regulation.


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