The term “computer crime” describes a wide range of criminal activity involving the use of computers. In general usage, it refers specifically to crimes perpetrated through the Internet or other computer networks employed by businesses or governments. Notorious forms of computer crime include the spreading of viruses and hacking into networks to steal or release private information. The sharing of copyrighted material has long been a controversial and illegal practice on the Internet. Criminals also use computers to stalk, harass or exploit others.
Crime existed long before computers, but since the technological revolution of the 20th century, many forms of crime have involved the use of computers in some way. Even if computers are not directly employed in commission of the crime, records relating to the crime may be retained in computers or computer networks. For this reason, investigators may seize computer equipment as evidence, or require network providers to release records or data that may be pertinent to a criminal investigation. Most law enforcement agencies employ specialists in computer forensics for investigations of computer crime and computer-related crimes.
The most well known form of computer crime involves “hacking,” the practice of breaking into private computer networks. Hackers were once considered harmless outlaws, but in the 21st century, they can access vast quantities of private information on whole populations. Sometimes this information is used for identity theft; other times, the information is simply leaked to public sites, where other criminals can exploit it. Governments are sometimes suspected of hacking the sites of businesses or other nations, a practice called “cyber warfare.”
Another notorious method of computer crime is the computer virus, a program designed to hack into a user’s computer, replicate itself and spread to other computers. Some viruses are called spyware, because they send the user’s private information to another location. “Scareware” describes ads or programs that claim to detect a nonexistent virus on a user’s computer, then direct the user to a site or program that actually does contain a virus. The collective term for these programs is “malware,” short for “malicious software.” Another kind of virus can effectively shut down a website by saturating its network with activity; this crime is known as a denial-of-service attack.
Vast amounts of personal information are available on the Internet, particularly since the rise of social networks. Criminals sometimes take advantage of this information to stalk or harass individuals. Child exploitation is a particularly egregious example of this. Other criminal uses of social networks include “cyber bullying” or even murder for hire, as in a well-publicized 2011 case in the United States. Any suspected case of computer crime should be immediately reported to a law enforcement agency and to the related computer network’s administrators.