by Liz Walter
Edward Gibbon described history as ‘little more than the register of crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind’. If this is true, it is perhaps not surprising to note a clear link between changes in a society – its inventions, habits, culture and technology – and changes in the nature of crimes committed within it.
In recent years it has been technology above all that has provided huge opportunities for a range of new crimes. Phishing (the practice of masquerading as a reputable organisation, especially via email, in order to trick people out of personal data such as bank account details) has been so widely publicized that only the most naïve would now fall for it. However, there are still many other internet crimes of varying degrees of sophistication.
Typosquatting involves buying a domain name that is very similar to that of a charity, perhaps differing by only one letter, with the intention of posing as that charity. One of the most famous and despicable examples of this was a rash of sites set up using common misspellings of the (easily misspelled) name of a missing British girl, Madeleine McCann. These sites were then used to steal donations intended to help fund the search for the child.
Malvertising is the use of bogus adverts which trick people into clicking on links which then introduce viruses into their systems. Software that is intended to infiltrate or damage computer systems is known as malware, while software that is used specifically to gather information such as bank account details is called spyware. Sometimes whole networks of PCs are infected without their owners’ knowledge. These are known as botnets, and are controlled centrally by a botmaster or botherder to carry out illicit tasks such as sending out huge amounts of spam or passing on viruses to other machines.
Social media has also generated a lot of words for bad behaviour, some of it mischievous rather than illegal, but some, for instance Google-stalking and cyberbullying, having the potential to tip into real crime. Fraping is the practice of hacking into someone’s Facebook page and changing what is written there, while Twitterjacking happens when someone sends out Tweets purporting to be from another person. Tina Fey, Condoleezza Rice and Bill Gates have been among the high-profile victims of this scam, usually carried out as a joke, but sometimes with more sinister intent. People who act unpleasantly on the internet are known as trolls, and those who harass others in online gaming are griefers.
Of course, not all modern crime is internet related. If you are withdrawing money from an ATM, beware of shoulder surfing, when the person behind you is trying to find out your PIN number, and if someone tells you they are carrying out a consumer survey, make sure they are not sugging, or covertly trying to sell you something.
Some crimes for which we have new words are in reality not new at all, but are perhaps being talked about more openly. There has been great concern recently, for example, about elder abuse, which now has an official definition from the World Health Organization of ‘a single or repeated act or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person’. Similarly, acquaintance rape is hardly new, but until recently it lacked a widely accepted name.
So do we have any new solutions to these new crimes? Well, of course, there are always new theories and trials. Criminals may find themselves sent on anger management courses, or made to participate in restorative justice, where they meet their victim in an attempt to make them understand the impact of their crime. Coming at the issue from a different angle, justice reinvestment proposes that money that would be spent on keeping people in jail is spent instead on improving their life chances. This notion would probably have found favour with HG Wells, who said that ‘Crime and bad lives are a measure of a State’s failure, all crime in the end is the crime of the community’.