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Hi-tech crime should be understood to mean much more than just crimes facilitated by computers or other communications technologies. Thinking about hi-tech crime in this broader sense allows us to assess more rigorously how to predict and so shorten crime and technology 'arms races'

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This book overturns existing knowledge about Darwin's 'independent' discovery of the theory of natural selection.

In addition to being an award-winning pioneer in the field of understanding hi-tech crime, Dr Mike Sutton, is the author Nullius in Verba: Darwin's greatest secret

What is hi-tech crime?

Finding out who wrote about them first might be a difficult task, but the terms "high technology” and "high tech” were most certainly popularized in the late 1970s and were used at that time in reference to cutting-edge technologies in genetics, medicine, robotics, manufacturing, communication systems and computers. By the mid-1980s, however, the interchangeable terms high technology, high tech and hi-tech became primarily used in reference to electronics and increasingly computers and communications technologies such as the internet and mobile communications devices and systems (Conside and Van Nostrand 2010; Collins English Dictionary 1979).

The evolution of the meaning of hi-tech from a wider focus in the 1970’s to the narrower one upon information technologies from the mid-1980s to the present time is undoubtedly due the advent and growth of personal computer use, the internet, the World Wide Web and the mysterious newness of online communities and computer mediated offending (e.g. Sterling 1992; Rheingold 1993; Herz 1994; Slouka 1995). This is something known in the science of science as being caused by shifting baseline syndrome, which is very neatly described by Arbesman (2012 p.172) as: ‘…how we become used to whatever state of affairs is true when we are born, or when we first look at a situation. Since we are only capable of seeing change over a single generation, if slow change occurs over many lifetimes, we often fail to perceive it.’ Arbesman goes on (p.173): ‘It’s easy to remember what is normal and the “correct” state of affairs when we start to write something new, after having set our baseline, even if we only do this subconsciously.” The apparent newness and unique properties of computer mediated crime was clearly well beyond the baseline of how many criminologists (myself included – e.g. Mann and Sutton 1998) and others thought about the criminal exploitation of new technologies that a new name was required for it. Hence the label hi-tech crime – or else cybercrime- was applied to computer crime only (e.g. NHTCU 1999), rather than other less impressive examples of offenders exploiting new technologies. Today, in criminology, it is for this reason that we continue to refer to high-tech, or hi-tech, crime solely as computer and communications technology oriented.

In the space of this brief article it is my intention to show that hi-tech crime (but much less so cybercrime) as it is currently understood is far wider than mere computer and other communications technology facilitated crime. I argue here that hi-tech crime should be re-imagined to apply to many more crimes than simply computer mediated offending. I will go on to argue that the term hi-tech crime can usefully be applied with reference to some crimes committed many thousands of years before the phrase hi-tech was ever coined. The reason for this proposal is that I believe that re-imagining high-tech crime to cover earlier technologies that were once but are no longer hi-tech might allow us to make accurate predictions about how currently effective crime prevention and detection technologies are likely to be overcome or simply by-passed by offenders adopting the very latest, as yet un-invented, high technology at the very real physical place where it is likely to intersect with resulting social activities and cultural change.

What offences should hi-tech crime include?

In higher education our students are taught not to reference Wikipedia and other Wiki sites because, subject as they are to revision by anyone at any time, these Websites can be unreliable sources. However, the last time I visited an IT-Law Wikia site I found a very agreeable definition of hi-tech crime as:

“Crimes that are committed either against new technologies or with the support of new technologies, often involving (but not restricted to) computers or computer networks.”

That definition may have changed tomorrow but nonetheless it was there today and that’s good enough for my purposes in quoting here.

The above definition is certainly wider than that adopted by Britain’s former National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) in 1999, which is limited to the criminal exploitation of information technology: “Hi-tech crime encompasses a variety of criminal activities contained in two broad categories:

  1. 'New crimes, new tools', e.g. hacking and denial of service, committed against an IT system and cannot be committed in any other way or against any other type of victim.
  2. 'Old crimes, new tools'. e.g. fraud, identity theft, stalking, and harassment, committed against the person and using IT to do it. “

Using the IT-Law Wikia definition, rather than the NHTCU one, we can re-imagine Hi-Tech crime before and outside of the realm of electronics and the current communications age that began in the late 20th century. Going as far back as ancient history will allow us to see how many new technological breakthroughs were either exploited by offenders to commit crime or targeted for theft or destruction. For example, how soon after humans discovered how to control fire was the first act of arson committed? Was the fire stolen? It’s so long ago that nobody knows. But the theme of fire theft and punishment features in ancient mythologies. A very telling question here is why? Consider, for example how closely the” theft of fire” (McGuire 2012 p. 8-12) where a stick is bought to the fire and lit and carried away resembles the act of copyright theft. Because in both cases the original “stock” is unharmed, undiminished physically and remains in place.

With such a broad definition of hi-tech crime, we can now imagine the loom smashing luddites as high-tech criminals, which is interesting given that modern looms were the forerunners of computers. Likewise, we may now consider, by way of just one more example, those coin clippers of yesteryear to have been exploiting the relatively new technology of money.

Having raised the argument then that hi-tech crime should be considered to include earlier crimes and other technology crimes that are not limited to the exploitations of electronics, I would like to argue the case a stage further to include those occurrences where we find cultural or behaviour changes brought about by new technologies. The definition of hi-tech crime that I propose, therefore, is as follows:

High-tech crime comprises the exploitation of new technological inventions, either as a tool or consequential social means to facilitate offending and/or as a specific target for highly focused offending.

To provide a real life example of the potentiall usefulness of this new definition consider what happened to my daughter in London several weeks ago. She was walking along the pavement reading a text message on her Apple i-phone when a youth on a bicycle, who was riding on the pavement, snatched the phone and rode off at such speed that my daughter and passers-by were unable to give chase. I would argue that the phone thief was a hi-tech criminal, because he targeted the hi-tech equipment that was being used precisely how the manufacturers intended it to be used, which represents a relatively new and fashionable way of doing things.

Firstly, we need to begin by asking ourselves for how long have so many humans been walking around in public paying less attention to their surroundings whilst focussing heavily on a small hand held gadget to the extent that it is no longer considered rude by the majority of other pedestrians, despite the fact that they have to dodge out of the way of the oblivious straight line walking phone texter? Is it 5 years 10? Whatever the answer, it’s not been happening for long. Secondly, for how long has it been socially acceptable for teenagers and adults to ride a bicycle on the pavement? I believe it is only since our roads in Britain have become so congested and dangerous that the danger to pedestrians from pavement cyclists is considered to be outweighed by the danger of a road traffic accident happening to the cyclist on the road. I think our widespread tolerance of cycling on the pavement began no more than 10 or 12 years ago, when we were first encouraged to leave our cars at home and cycle to work. The thief who stole my daughters phone, therefore, exploited the high-technology of the mobile phone and its designed usage along with the changes that widespread frequent use of the motor car brought about in British society.

Aiming to better understand the intersection between technology, behavioral, social, and cultural changes fits well Routine Activities Theory (RAT), with its explanation of how crime shifts and changes in relation to changes in society - and according to Felson and Boba (2010) the key to such changes is the technology of everyday life. Thinking about the meaning of the term hi-tech crime in this new way does not mean however that any theft of hi-tech products is necessarily a hi-tech crime. Stealing an i-phone from a table in the course of a “traditional” house burglary, for example, should no more be considered a hi-tech crime than burglars stealing any other valuable commodity such as cash or antiques. Using an electronic lock pick to gain entry, however, might be considered a hi-tech crime.

Graffiti, which has been around since the Roman Times, has never before been described as a hi-tech crime. Before aerosol paint was introduced for public consumption in the late 1940's this crime was a messy business involving tins of paint and brushes and the time required to open tin lids and stow used brushes. That inconvenience increased the risk of paint stained hands clothes and 'red-handed' detection. The portability and convenience of spray paint and marker pens undoubtedly facilitated the rise in obnoxious graffiti, of tags and graffiti art. Today businesses advertise graffiti equipment on the internet and my own city of Nottingham in England has banned the sale of spray paint to children. According to my thesis the vandals who sprayed graffiti on an ambulance are, like all spray paint vandals, hi-tech offenders.

Let’s go a stage further. Because now this newly imagined way of defining hi-tech crime allows us to consider the notion of hi-tech hate crimes.

The generally accepted notion of hate crime is that it is a crime committed against a victim because of what they are rather than who they are or what they did. Consider then what happened to Dr Stephen Mann in July 2012.

On his blog Mann alleges that in a McDonald’s “restaurant” in Paris people tried to rip a wearable computerised eye from his face despite the fact that it is permanently attached to his skull and cannot be removed without special tools. Mann has been wearing this computerised eye for 13 years. Arguably, then, Mann was assaulted because he is cybernetic. A high-tech hate crime surely? But not if we allow ourselves to be limited by current scholarly definitions of cybercrime and hi-tech crime as including only computer mediated offending. Thinking about hate crime in this way allows us to realize that hate crimes committed against people with disabilities are likely to be a polar opposite in a possible future where hate crimes are routinely committed against those with cybernetic enhanced abilities, many of whom would be otherwise disabled. How long will it be then before offenders use this technology to commit crimes and resist arrest? How long before the police play catch-up and Robocops walk the beat? What might be the latest hi-technology that will pose a crime threat that few people seem to have the forsight to imagine? What about 3D printing - a technology that literally builds objects in the way that bones are constructed. No need to buy or import a gun when you can simply print one. You can read more about that here (Kirby 2012)

The widening of hi-tech crime can be explored further by asking Was Sir Jimmy Saville (OBE), the institutional paedophile, a high tech criminal?

At the time of writing, the big story on the British news is that the recently deceased media celebrity Sir Jimmy Saville abused hundreds under-age children and older victims, in plain sight, for over 40 years.

Saville was one of the first, if not the first, big DJ (disc jockey). Unable as he was to sing or play an instrument well, Saville exploited the hi-fidelity technology of new music systems in the 1960’s to play in public music made by others. As a “mere” music playing (disk jockey) personality he exploiting his hi-technology enabled new found celebrity position to begin raping and otherwise abusing underage teenagers, many of whom would have been attracted to his fame within the nightclub disco scene. According to my definition, his exploitation of the technology in this way makes Saville a Hi-Tech criminal. Moreover, in the 1960’s as a new media TV celebrity, Saville started out exploiting both the technology and the cultural changes that television bought in terms of celebrity culture and its worshipful social status. In sum, hi-technology facilitated both Saville’s relatively unquestioned predatory behavior in nightclubs and later in his dressing room at the BBC studious.

How can reimagining hi-tech crime in this way help us identify future crime problems?

The history of initial criminal exploitation of new technologies and the ensuing “arms race” between them and manufacturers, police and the wider criminal justice system teaches us that there are points at which 'straight' society finally seems gains the upper hand. The history of bank vault and safe breaking is an excellent example of this. Because in both cases, after more than 100 years of evolutionary improvements in design, the latest high quality safes and bank vaults are for all intents and purposes - currently at least - impregnable. Something similar to this arms race happened with the “getaway” car. For decades, the armed robbers car of choice was chosen because it could outrun the fastest police car. The car of choice was constantly changing, however, because the police constantly played catch-up by buying identical vehicles for future pursuit. Today we are, at least at the time of writing, at the stage where police helicopters with their armoury of technology including night sights and infra-red systems can track any offender on foot or in car travelling at day or night along the highway in order to direct officers to intercept them. So far, the arms race between offenders' vehicles and those used by the police to catch them has, it seems, been won by the police.

What we need to ask now then is what hi-tech breakthrough might lead to thieves once again gaining the upper hand with regard to (for example) bank vault and safe breaking? What new technology might enable offenders to conceal themselves or even out run a police helicopter? Such high technology may not arrive tomorrow or next year or even in the next 100 years. But I have no doubt it will emerge and when it does we will once again be playing catch-up with the hi-tech crooks. Are we to be forever doomed to play catch up with crooks in this way? Perhaps not if we can better understand how hi-tech inventions intersect with cultural and behaviour change and how such intersections create niches that can be exploited by the likes of pre-historic fire stealers, coin clippers, armed robbers, petty street-level criminals, credit card and other fraudsters, scammers, copyright thieves and institutional paedophiles such as Sir Jimmy Saville (OBE).

As to when high technology becomes just technology and even lo-tech I have no idea at the time of writing. As always, more research and better best thinking is needed.


Arbesman, S. (2012) The Half-Life of Facts: Why everything we know has an expiration date. New York. Current: Penguin Books.

Collins English Dictionary (1979) London and Glasgow. William Collins and Sons

Considine, Glenn D. Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia, (2010) 10th ed

Felson, M and Boba, R. (2010) Crime and Everyday Life. Fourth Edition. Los Angeles. Sage.

Herz, J. C. (1994) Surfing on the Internet: A Net-Head’s Adventures On-Line. London. Abacus.

Kirby, C (2012) 3d Printing: A Fun Way to Disrupt Intellectual Property, Gun Control and Capitalism. Best Thinking. Trending Topic.

Mann, D. and Sutton, M. (1998) >>NetCrime: More Change in the Organisation of Thieving. British Journal of Criminology, Volume 38, No.2, Spring.

McGuire, M.R (2012) Technology, Crime and Justice: The question concerning technomia. London. Routledge.

National Hi Tech Crime Unit (1999) From Operation Trawler:

Slouka, M. (1995) War of the Worlds the assault on reality. London. Abacus.

Sterling, B. (1992) The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. New York Penguin Books.

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Mike Sutton
Dr Mike Sutton is the author of 'Nullius in Verba: Darwin's greatest secret'.

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