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Cyber organized crime: What is it?


Many crimes and cybercrimes have some level of organization (Wall, 2017); that is, these crimes and cybercrimes are "planned, rational acts that reflect the effort of groups of individuals" (see Module 1 on Definitions of Organized Crime of the E4J University Module Series on Organized Crime). To differentiate between organized crime and cyber organized crime, this Module (and the E4J University Module Series on Cybercrime) focuses on the "cyber" component of cyber organized crime (Wall, 2017). This section of the Module explores the answers to the following questions:

  • What role does cyberspace play in helping criminals organize themselves?
  • How does cyberspace and its technologies transform organized criminal behaviour to create new forms of crime?

Cyberspace and the organization of criminal groups

Many organized criminal groups simply use Internet technologies to communicate with one another and conduct their business. This "business" may create "ephemeral" forms of organization where the Internet is used to link up offenders to commit an offline crime, after which they dissipate to form new alliances. Alternatively, organized criminal groups may use networked technologies to create more "sustained" organizational forms, [meant to last in time and to offer] protect[ion to] the criminals operating under its wing from other criminals in the field and also law enforcement agencies (Varese, 2010, p. 14). Between these two extremes of the spectrum, there are also 'hybrid' forms in which a more broadly accepted criminal goal is widely circulated 'virtually' by a small core group, but its physical expression is conducted by individual lone wolves or localized cells - as found with some types of hacker groups or in offline situations where a linkage is established between crime and terrorism. It is important to note that while the "activities of terrorists and organized criminal groups can overlap (Bassiouni, 1990)," "they generally pursue different objectives" (i.e., terrorists primarily pursue political or social objectives, whereas organized criminal groups primarily pursue "financial or other material benefit[s]"; Module 1 on Definitions of Organized Crime of the E4J University Series on Organized Crime; for more information on the links between organized crime and terrorism please see Module 16 on Linkages between Organized Crime and Terrorism of the E4J Series on Organized Crime). Most organized criminal groups tend to exist on a continuum between ephemeral and sustainable with hybrids in the middle and use Internet technologies to organize themselves to a lesser or greater extent.


Cyberspace and the organization of cybercrime

Whilst almost all organized criminal groups will use some type of networked technology to organize themselves and their crimes, some are also using those technologies to commit cybercrimes. The actual nature of the organization of cybercrimes varies according to the level of digital and networked technology involved, the modus operandi and the intended victim groups, which also help to define the differences between them (see Wall, 2017).

The level of use or transformation by digital and networked technology

The more traditional organized criminal groups tend not to be involved in committing cyber-dependent crimes, which are those crimes that disappear when the Internet is removed (Wall, 2015, also see Lavorna and Sergi, 2014; and others). They are, however, increasingly using networked technologies to communicate with each other to organize crimes or seek intended victims, for example, to sell drugs over the Internet or darknet. These forms of cybercrime are either "cyber-assisted" (usually using communications technology), because without the Internet the offending would still take place but by other means of communication, or they are "cyber-enabled", when long-standing (usually localized) forms of offending, such as illicit gambling, frauds and extortion, are given a global reach by digital and networked technologies. If the Internet is removed, then the offending would revert from the global to the local form. They contrast sharply with "cyber-dependent" crimes such as hacking, distributed denial of service and ransomware attacks, and spamming which, as indicated above, disappear when the Internet is removed from the equation.

Modus Operandi

Cybercrime also varies according to the modus operandi of the offending involved, which is linked with the motivations and profile of the criminal actors. The organization of "cybercrimes against the machine" such as computer misuse offences by hackers, for example, are very different to "cybercrimes using the machine" such as, scams, frauds, and extortion. Both of these are also very different from "cybercrimes in the machine" such as child sexual abuse material, hate speech, terrorist materials (where the offence is actually in the computer content) (Wall, 2017; see Cybercrime Module 2 on General Types of Cybercrime for more information).

Target Victim Groups

The final factor that has to be considered when looking at cybercrime and its organization is who are the targeted victim groups. Some criminal groups deliberately target individual users, for example, by spamming deceptive emails to scam or defraud them. Other groups deliberately target businesses or governmental organizations, to commit larger scale frauds, obtain trade secrets or to disrupt their business flows (to extort or at the behest of a rival). Finally, other groups, usually State actors, deliberately target the infrastructures of other States to create distrust or discontent and/or to cause harm (Wall, 2017).

Therefore, not only is the organization of criminals using networked technologies a very different issue to the way that criminals organize crimes online, but the latter also depends upon the level of technologies used, the particular criminal acts being committed, and also the intended victim groups.

Various research findings (Leukfeldt et al., 2017, 2017a, 2017b, 2016a, 2016b, and Wall, 2015) highlight that offline organized criminal groups are completely different sets of actors to online organized criminal groups, but they also differ in terms of their age, motivation, organization and gender make up (although they all seem to be predominantly male; for further information on gender dimensions of online organized criminal groups, see Hutchings and Chua, 2016; for more information on gender and organized crime see Module 15 of the E4J University Module Series on Organized Crime). Not only these actors [might be] different, but their organization tends to be distributed, if not dis-organized, by comparison to offline organized crime groups (Wall, 2015; see the discussion about "swarms" and "hubs" in the section on Criminal groups engaging in cyber organized crime).

Next: Conceptualizing organized crime and defining the actors involved
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