The Difficulties of Prosecuting High Tech Crimes

Prosecuting high tech crimes can be difficult. Technology has made law enforcement’s job far more difficult with data moving around the world at the speed of light. Today’s bank robber may conduct a heist in Los Angeles from Albania. Today’s scam artist may steal an elderly person’s savings from Nigeria. The anonymous world of the Internet makes the criminal’s two best friends, speed and concealment, almost standard.

Lawmakers and the courts are catching up by putting into law the acts that constitute a high tech crime. It has always been a crime to prevent customers from entering a store by blocking the door. It is now a crime to uses a number of Internet ploys to do the same to an on-line store such as a directed denial of service attack.

While currency is still moved the old fashioned way, in armored trucks, high tech criminals know where the real money is kept. Bank robberies today involve hacking computers and stealing bank account numbers and passwords. More money can be stolen with just a few key strokes than any bank robber ever stole with a gun and a note handed to a teller.

What makes prosecuting high tech crimes difficult?

The Internet makes it easy to remain anonymous. Through the use of proxy servers and other systems, the trail of clues left by a traditional criminal vanishes. No DNA. No fingerprints. No map found in the trash showing the bank’s location with a big, red circle around it.

High tech detectives must follow the bits and bytes of data to locate their criminals. It may involve reconstructing a hard drive that has been wiped clean. It may involve obtaining a subpoena compelling the release of user data from an Internet Service Provider. Very often, it involves multiple legal jurisdictions in a number of different nations.

Prosecution is equally difficult. Was a crime committed? Where was the crime committed? And, how easy will it be to explain the crime to a jury?

For, in the end, a jury will decide the guilt of a high tech criminal. The investigators will have to explain what happened, in terms that the jury can understand. Once terms such as TCP/IP, DDOS, worms or viruses and data packets begin being tossed around the courtroom, there is a danger that the jury will tune out. The prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. To do that they must be able to tie the defendant to every step, every activity, involved with the high tech crime.

Prosecutors lose high tech crime cases all the time. The creator of a worm may not have used it to steal credit card data. The owner of a computer may not have been the user that downloaded those songs. Juries may see the incident as a prank, not a crime, or even as protected speech. There are few more complex prosecutions than those for high tech crimes.