The Psychology of Cyber Crime – Concepts and Principles

Authors: Grainne Kirwan; Andrew Power

The authors have set themselves the goal of bundling a number of ideas about the psychology of cyber crime. However, this is not easy, especially because it is not so simple to define cyber crime as an overarching container concept. They try to do that in the first chapter of section 1 (Introduction): “Creating the Ground Rules: How can Cybercrime be Defined and Governed?” The term covers a wide variety of thefts, private issues such as disputes between buyers and sellers, and all kinds of anti-social behavior. The definition they work with becomes “any activity occurring online which has intended negative consequences for others”

A first category are crimes that already exist offline, but are now facilitated by the internet. Examples are bank card fraud, theft of information, blackmail, obscenity, money laundering, etc. A second category are new crimes that did not exist before working with networked computers. Examples are hacking, denial of service, distribution of malware, …

A third category comes to mind when computer users start using online Avatars. This can be, for example, the harassing of someone online, which then continues offline.

The government can respond to cybercrime through laws; a response can come from companies with, among other things, a practical code of conduct, a technical response or a user response.

Because the internet is growing in terms of the number of users and the number of hours per user, we can speak of a term such as “cyber citizen”. That means there is a need for a framework of laws, rules and guidelines to keep order online.

The next question is “Can Forensic Psychology Contribute to Solving the Problem of Cybercrime?”. This determines the issue in Chapter 2.

Forensic psychology as a concept is well known to the general public through television series. But they provide a distorted picture. So the first question is “What is Forensic Psychology?”. In this work the broad definition is chosen that states that “forensic psychology is a combination of legal psychology covering the application of psychological knowledge and methods to the process of law and criminological psychology dealing with the application of psychological theory and method to the understanding ( and reduction) of criminal behavior ”. The authors also assume that “it will be considered to include any way by which psychology can be of assistance at any stage in the criminal justice process.”

Tasks in which forensic psychology is involved are the assessment of offenders with regard to psychological disorders, the punishment, rehabilitation and the associated risk assessment. This includes interviewing suspects and analyzing eyewitness accounts. And ultimately also profiling offenders in criminal investigations.

Chapter 3 continues with the question “Can Theories of Crime be Applied to Cybercriminal Acts?”.

After all, theoretical explanations of crimes can help society understand how and why crimes are happening. But it also helps predict future criminal behavior. In addition, the insight provides a basis for successful rehabilitation strategies, as well as preventive strategies. There are different types of theories:

  • Social theories (which views crime on a social level rather than individually),
  • Community theory that states that sometimes crime does not happen randomly in society,
  • Socialization Influence Theories, which state that psychology is important because, for example, it involves observational learning,
  • Individual Theories, which state that certain traits of the person determine the likelihood that he or she will become a criminal, and what type of criminal.

Such theories can then (perhaps) be applied to cyber crime. Important in this are:

  • Social Construction of Crime: some cases are already criminally offline, others are offline in a gray area, but are not socially accepted,
  • Biological Theories of Crime: A comparison is made with the ancient “science” of cranology. There is some evidence that the majority of cyber criminals are men, but there is very little information on how biological theories explain cyber crime. So it’s been noticed somewhat, but we don’t know why it would be true,
  • Learning Theories: A cyber criminal candidate may be put off by fear of punishment, or by guilt when he / she sees the consequences for the victim. Or he / she may induce to commit the crime online, but not to commit it offline, such as cyberbullying.
  • Eysenck’s Theory of crime: he applied conditioning learning theory to crime, and came up with the idea that people with more extroversion, neurotisism, and psychoses are more likely to engage in criminal behavior. This theory is strongly contradicted by his colleagues.
  • Psychoanalytic theories do not appear to be fertile ground for explanations of criminal behavior.
  • Addiction and Arousal Theory: it has been noted that treatment of the addiction often leads to a reduction / cessation of criminal behavior. There are also testimonials from cyber criminals that “they get a thrill” of committing the crime.
  • Neutralization theory: criminals rationalize their guilt feelings with different types of argumentation. There is also some evidence for cyber criminals doing this.
  • Geographic theories are also important in cybercrime: different countries or groups of countries have different laws, different definitions of certain types of crimes. But the ease of access to the means to commit the crime also plays a role. E.g. having a computer, servers, network, internet.

Section 2 deals with Internet-specific crimes.

Section 3 deals with online variations of offline crimes

I summarize a few things about these two sections in this Excel sheet:

Section 4 talks about crimes in virtual worlds.

This is not so much about pure crime over the internet, but about crimes against people, who, among other things, present themselves as avatars. Chapter 12 asks the question “Crime in Virtual Worlds: Should Victims Feel Distressed?” This includes property crime, such as theft of property, but also crimes against persons, such as their avatar, including rape, stalking, etc., which can also continue offline. The question of police action and preventive action is addressed. But there appears to be mainly anecdotal data, not so much a large mass of empirical data.

Finally, Chapter 13 deals with “On-Line Governance”: what is needed in online government, what else is needed, how do political tendencies emerge, and how has “Second Life” been important in the past. But also: is a “Virtual Government” an added value? ”. Or should the government stay away from the Virtual World? E.g. because it is hopeless, or even unwanted?

Manu Steens

Manu works at the Flemish Government in risk management and Business Continuity Management. On this website, he shares his own opinions regarding these and related fields. Since 2012, he has been working at the Crisis Centre of the Flemish Government (CCVO), where he has progressed in BCM, risk management, and crisis management. Since August 2021, he has been a knowledge worker for the CCVO. As of January 2024, he works at the Department of Chancellery and Foreign Affairs of the Flemish Government. Here, he combines BCM, risk management, and crisis management to create a tailored form of resilience management to meet the needs of the Flemish Government.

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