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Introduction: Technocrime at the Margins

Published onDec 01, 2018
Introduction: Technocrime at the Margins
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When first asked to guest edit a special issue of the Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice and Criminology, I admit that I was hesitant. I knew from helping Willard Oliver start this journal and from working as its first book review editor that editorship can be trying—and often under-appreciated—work. Tom Holt, the editor of the journal at the time, however, was ambitious and willing to take some risks in his mission to carry the journal forward. As such, he offered me tremendous latitude and support for pursuing my unique vision for a special issue on technocrime issues from a diverse arrangement of perspectives. The opportunity was too good to pass up. Guest editing this journal allowed me to cultivate a novel issue of important topics in the field of technocrime from noteworthy authors on a variety of topics including hacking, phishing and malware victimization, presidential rhetoric, sexting, and even a disciplinary critique.

I am thrilled that others saw the value in such research and seized the opportunity contribute to this special issue. Technocrime and victimization are a growing concern both within the academy and the public consciousness. In the past two years we have seen distributed denial of service attacks launched from a botnet populating the Internet of Things called “Mirai;” one of the most significant data breaches ever—the Equifax breach—which compromised extremely sensitive personal and financial information of hundreds of millions of people; the proliferation of ransomware such as Petya, NotPetya, and BadRabbit; and Russia’s use of hackers and trolls to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, to name a few examples. The point is that concerns continue to mount and there is tremendous work to be done by criminologists. It is critical at this juncture that we employ a kaleidoscopic array of perspectives to make sense of the variegated issues with which we are confronted. This issue presents one step in this direction.

On a different note, the reader may wonder why the term technocrime is used throughout this issue, especially considering that cybercrime is the accepted nomenclature in both the field and beyond. The choice of vernacular is purposive. As I have detailed elsewhere (Steinmetz & Nobles, 2018), I have difficulty with the political and conceptual baggage involved in the invocation of “cyber.” Instead, I prefer to use the term technocrime which I borrow from the work of Leman-Langlois (2013), though the term technically predates his work (Bequai, 1987). For my money, Leman-Langlois’ use of the term is more suited for social scientific endeavors than cybercrime. It acknowledges the often ephemeral, elusive, and ambiguous dimensions of high-technology crime and information security while eschewing the political connotations now attached to “cyber.” As he explains,

Technocrime does not exist. It is a figment of our imaginations. It is simply a convenient way to refer to a set of concepts, practices, frames and knowledges shaping the ways in which we understand matters having to do with the impact of technology on crime, criminals and our reactions to crime—and vice versa: since crime, criminals and reactions also transform technology. (Leman-Langlois, 2013, p. 1)

Cyber, on the other hand, tends to give us the impression that our conversations concerning high-technology and crime are “closer to the natural laws that gave us computers than to the artificial laws that gave us crimes” (Leman-Langlois, 2008, p. 4). Since we are ultimately involved in social scientific endeavors, the judicious use of the criminological imagination (Young, 2011) demands that we reject false equivalencies with the “natural sciences” and adopt concepts which are more appropriate to the socio-cultural realm. To borrow McGuire’s (this issue) eloquent articulation of the matter, the term cyber tends to prioritize “syntax” over “semantics.” My view is that Leman-Langlois’ use of technocrime avoids—or at least mitigates—this issue. That said, it should be noted that not every author in this volume eschews the term cyber in the same way I do. Rather than act as an autocrat, I decided it was best to allow each author to make a decision for themselves about which terms they would prefer to use. As such, technocrime, cybercrime, Internet crimes, and other terms are invoked throughout this issue at the discretion of the authors.

The first article in this special issue, “CONs, CONstructions and CONcepts of Computer Related Crime: From a Digital Syntax to a Social Semantics,” M. R. McGuire provides an examination of a key conceptual and linguistic issue which confronts criminology’s approach to technocrime or cybercrime. In short, he argues that our current thinking on the subject is mired in a discourse that privileges technical (syntactic) approaches over the socio-cultural (semantic) dimensions. The distinction between the syntactic and the semantic is important. As McGuire rightly points out, we are too often preoccupied with viewing computer-related crime and security issues as constellations of technical problems to be solved through technical means. Firewalls, machine learning algorithms, simulation analyses, advanced statistical modeling often seem to dominate our imaginations in the realm of “cyber.” As argued in this essay, such thinking is seemingly coded into the very discourse which frames the issue. Thinking syntactically structures our thinking about technocrime and security which may be useful to some extent, but it also limits our capacity to imagine alternative perspectives, approaches, and solutions. McGuire thus argues that we seriously need to reconsider our entire orientation to the field—an argument that, from my view, is difficult to contradict.

Wytske van der Wagen provides the second article comprising this issue—“The Cyborgian Deviant: An Assessment of the Hacker through the Lens of Actor-Network Theory.” Involved is an analysis of hackers through Latour’s articulations of Actor-Network theory (1992; 2005). Latour argues for a reassessment of our understandings of “social.” Instead of framing the social as a separate realm of existence which exists outside of human experience and engagement, Latour argues that the social exists entirely at the relational level. In this capacity, society is but a constellation of actors networked together through social relationships. He thus redefines sociology “not as the ‘science of the social’, but as the tracing of associations” (Latour, 2005, p. 5; emphasis in original). He further explains that “in this meaning of the adjective, social does not designate a thing among other things, like a black sheep among other white sheep, but a type of connection between things that are not themselves social” (ibid; emphasis in original). As things are not inherently social but, rather, become social through particular kinds of associations, then non-human entities can be social including animals and even objects. Humans and technology, therefore, can enter into social relationships. In a manner described as “cyborgian”, van der Wagen argues that hacker identity is characterized by social relationships with technology which blurs the distinction between the human and the technological. Her discussion is segmented into five parts, all of which are attuned to the relational dimensions between hackers and tech. This analysis builds from prior analyses which have applied actor-network theory to the study of technocrime, such as van der Wagen’s own study on botnets (van der Wagen & Pieters, 2015). Van der Wagen’s research indicates a rich path forward for Latourian analyses of technocrime.

This special issue also includes an analysis of presidential rhetoric on “cybercrime” by Joshua B. Hill and Nancy E. Marion entitled “The Use of Mythic Narratives in Presidential Rhetoric on Cybercrime.” Though some may dismiss the utterances of American presidents as having little long-standing and significant effect on public opinion beyond short-lived attention-grabbing headlines, Hill and Marion argue that people are influenced by presidential rhetoric in significant ways which, in turn, may have lasting impacts on public policy. The authors thus build on prior analyses to examine presidential speeches invoking cyber-related terms (like cybercrime, cyberterrorism, and cyber-attack) between the years 1995 and 2015. Their analysis focuses on how U.S. presidential speeches frame “cyber” issues as threats in such a way that seem to propagate a mythology conducive to fear and a political agenda of securitization. Studies of this sort are important as criminological research into technocrime (and other areas of criminology more generally) tend of focus on lower-level criminal actors rather than policy and power. Hill and Marion’s work stands as a noteworthy contribution in this regard.

The final two analyses presented in this special issue both concern technocrime victimization. In “Coping with Cybercrime Victimization: An Exploratory Study into Impact and Change,” Jurgen Jansen and Rutger Leukfeldt examine how a sample of 30 online banking customers cope with the impact of phishing and malware attacks. Their study documented multiple impacts experienced by victims include financial, emotional, and psychological damages. Further, secondary forms of victimization were also found as participants reported feeling that banks and the police did not aid them property in recovery. These participants also reported frustrations at time lost in dealing with banks and the police. As a result of these victimization experiences, behavioral changes were documented. Perhaps the most useful discussion in this analysis occurs when the authors frame the coping strategies adopted by victims and ruminate on potential policy implications. Despite a slew of studies emerging on online victimization (see Button & Cross, 2017, for an overview of online fraud victimization research, for example), further work is still needed in this domain, particularly in regards to two of the most prevalent sources of technocrime victimization today: phishing and malware. Jansen and Leukfeldt’s analysis thus provides a significant advancement in this regard.

Finally, this issue ends with a moral panic analysis of sexing by Karen Holt entitled, “Seductive Events: A Critical Examination of Youth Sexting.” Drawing from narrative criminology (Presser & Sandberg, 2015), Holt details two narratives which have emerged surrounding sexting: the victim narrative and the moral panic narrative. The former includes “stories of tragedy” which “portrays sexting youth  as  a  vulnerable  population,  at  risk  for  both victimization and exploitation” as well as criminality (page 231). The latter “asserts  that  the reaction to sexting is disproportionate to the threats presented  by  engaging  in  this  behavior, and that much of the focus has been solely on the negative consequences of sexting, which are statistical anomalies” (page 231). Though perhaps marginal for the time being, narrative criminology is quickly gathering steam and is on the verge of becoming a popular orientation across both mainstream and critical criminologies. Holt’s analysis is one example of the power of narrative analysis to make sense of what Ferrell (2013, p. 258) calls the “politics of meaning” surrounding teen sexting.

I would also like to take a moment to thank all of the reviewers who contributed to this special issue. They answered the call in brilliant fashion and I am still overwhelmed by their insights and graciousness. The reviewers for this issue are enumerated below:

  • James Aho

  • James Banks

  • Alayna Colburn

  • Heith Copes

  • Thomas Crofts

  • Cassandra Cross

  • Kelly Cronin

  • Jonathan Grubb

  • Thomas Holt

  • Alison Marganski

  • Alyce McGovern

  • Lisa Melander

  • Willard Oliver

  • Duncan Philpot

  • Brian Schaefer

  • Brian Sellers

  • Peter Simi

  • Robin Valeri

  • Lindsey Upton

  • David Wall

  • Ashley Wellman

  • Majid Yar

In conclusion, I am greatly indebted to the effort of these authors and the reviewers. They are responsible for making this special issue novel and noteworthy. I hope the reader finds these studies as interesting as I do. I would also like to thank Tom Holt for extending this opportunity to contribute to JQCJC. The study of technocrime issues—though gaining traction—is still relatively marginal in the field of criminology. It is important that venues like JQCJC create spaces for this kind of scholarship. There is more work that needs to be done.

References

Bequai, A. (1987). Technocrimes. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Button, M., & Cross, C. (2017). Cyber frauds, scams and their victims. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ferrell, J. (2013). Cultural criminology and the politics of meaning. Critical Criminology, 21, 257-271.

Latour, B. (1992). Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts. In W. E. Bijker and J. Law (eds.) Shaping technology/building society: Studies in sociotechnical change (pp. 225-258). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Cambridge, MA: Oxford University Press.

Leman-Langlois, S. (2008). Introduction: Technocrime. In S. Leman-Langlois (ed.) Technocrime: Technology, Crime and Social Change (pp. 1-13). Portland, OR: Willan Publishing.

Leman-Langlois, S. (2013). Introduction. In S. Leman-Langlois (ed.) Technocrime, policing and surveillance (pp. 1-12). New York, NY: Routledge.

Presser, L. & Sandberg, S. (2015). Narrative criminology: Understanding stories of crime. New York, NY: NYU Press.

Steinmetz, K. F. & Nobles, M. R. (2018). Introduction. In K. F. Steinmetz and M. R. Nobles (eds.) Technocrime and criminological theory (pp. 1-10). New York, NY: Routledge.

Van der Wagen, W., & Pieters, W. (2015). From cybercrime to cyborg crime: Botnets as hybrid criminal actor-networks. British Journal of Criminology, 55(3), 578-595.

Young, J. (2011). The criminological imagination. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

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