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International review of criminal policy - Nos. 43 and 44/Definition of computer crime

A. Definition of computer crime

20. It is difficult to determine when the first crime involving a computer actually occurred. The computer has been around in some form since the abacus, which is known to have existed in 3500 B.C. in Japan, China and India. In 1801 profit motives encouraged Joseph Jacquard, a textile manufacturer in France, to design the forerunner of the computer card. This device allowed the repetition of a series of steps in the weaving of special fabrics. So concerned were Jacquard's employees with the threat to their traditional employment and livelihood that acts of sabotage were committed to discourage Mr. Jacquard from further use of the new technology. A computer crime had been committed.

21. There has been a great deal of debate among experts on just what constitutes a computer crime or a computer-related crime. Even after several years, there is no internationally recognized definition of those terms. Indeed, throughout this Manual the terms computer crime and computer-related crime will be used interchangeably. There is no doubt among the authors and experts who have attempted to arrive at definitions of computer crime that the phenomenon exists. However, the definitions that have been produced tend to relate to the study for which they were written. The intent of authors to be precise about the scope and use of particular definitions means, however, that using these definitions out of their intended context often creates inaccuracies. A global definition of computer crime has not been achieved; rather, functional definitions have been the norm.

22. Computer crime can involve criminal activities that are traditional in nature, such as theft, fraud, forgery and mischief, all of which are generally subject everywhere to criminal sanctions. The computer has also created a host of potentially new misuses or abuses that may, or should, be criminal as well.

23. In 1989, expanding on work that had been undertaken by OECD, the European Committee on Crime Problems of the Council of Europe produced a set of guidelines for national legislators that enumerated activities that should be subject to criminal sanction. By discussing the functional characteristics of target activities, the Committee did not attempt a formal definition of computer crime but left individual countries to adapt the functional classification to their particular legal systems and historical traditions.

24. The terms "computer misuse" and "computer abuse" are also used frequently, but they have significantly different implications. Criminal law recognizes the concepts of unlawful or fraudulent intent and of claim of right; thus, any criminal laws that relate to computer crime would need to distinguish between accidental misuse of a computer system, negligent misuse of a computer system and intended, unauthorized access to or misuse of a computer system, amounting to computer abuse. Annoying behavior must be distinguished from criminal behavior in law.

25. In relation to the issue of intent, the principle of claim of right also informs the determination of criminal behavior. For example, an employee who has received a password from an employer, without direction as to whether a particular database can be accessed, is unlikely to be considered guilty of a crime if he or she accesses that database. However, the principle of claim of right would not apply to the same employee who steals a password from a colleague to access that same database, knowing his or her access is unauthorized; this employee would be behaving in a criminal manner.

26. A distinction must be made between what is unethical and what is illegal; the legal response to the problem must be proportional to the activity that is alleged. It is only when the behavior is determined to be truly criminal that criminal prohibition and prosecution should be sought. The criminal law, therefore, should be employed and implemented with restraint.


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