Cybercrime and Probation: Out of the Loop


Approximately 15 years ago, I ventured into the area of managing cyber-risk in community correction populations (pretrial, probation, parole, etc.).

Initially, the techniques were rather simplistic. They centered on prohibiting access to computers and/or the Internet. Courts were then willing to support such restrictions, as access was not essential in everyday life for the vast majority of offenders.

Computers used in criminal behavior at that time generally came in two types: desk tops and laptops. Internet access required a cable, and cell phones were generally used only for making voice calls. Gaming systems, although still computer-based, did not connect to the Internet.

Over the years, society has become much more technologically dependent.

Computers and Internet access have become not only widespread but generally essential to everyday life. Courts, recognizing technology's role in today's society, have also become increasing reluctant to impose wholesale computer or Internet prohibitions on offenders. As an alternative, courts have gravitated towards conditions that authorize computer searches and/or monitoring.

I recently conducted a survey of a LinkedIn Group (Community Corrections Cyber-Supervision Group), which is … “for community corrections officers (pretrial services, probation, and parole) and others who are involved with supervising individuals in the community and in cyberspace.” The survey found that computer monitoring and/or searches were used to manage risk in the following types of cases:

•Sex Offenders, 78%

•Internet Harassment/Stalking, 35%

•Internet/Identify Fraud, 27%

•Check Fraud, 22%

•Hacking Offenses, 16%

•Counterfeiting, 16%

•Approximately 19% reported not using either computer monitoring or searches to manage cyber-risk in any cases.

Unfortunately, community correction agencies are not always able to effectively use computer searches and/or monitoring to manage offender cyber-risk.

Part of the difficulty is that today’s devices are more varied than just a desk or laptop, and they have built in interconnectivity. They easily connect to wireless hotspots, making Internet access no longer dependent upon a “cable.” Cell phones and gaming systems have increasingly become fully functioning computers, with capability of Internet browsing, Instant messaging, etc. Additionally, the storage size of computing devices has grown substantially in the last 15 years.

The evolving nature and variety of computer devices and operating systems poses challenges to search and monitoring techniques.

Computer search capabilities still allow for agencies to periodically check laptops, desk tops and personal devices, provided they have the equipment and trained staff. However, searching gaming systems is still out of reach of many agencies without the assistance of law enforcement support (computer crime units or labs).

Computer monitoring is only an option with certain devices, such as laptops, desk tops, and cell phones and operating systems (Windows or Macintosh). Even when these situations are technically feasible, the actual task of searching or monitoring can be very labor intensive.

To complicate the situation, no longer is computer non-compliance limited to so-called “high tech” offenders. Gang members often use cell phones and the Internet to engage in their illicit activities.

A recent Australian study found that 18 percent of American drug users had abused substances which had been obtained online from an underground website known as Silk Road. Finally, many offenders post online information about themselves and their activities on social media sites for all to see, but their supervision officer is frequently prohibited from accessing these sites by his agency.

Clearly, probation and parole agencies are getting taxed to their limits when it comes to managing cyber-risk.

The LinkedIn survey I noted above found that 65% of the respondents believed they needed more training. Between 22% and 27% observed that they lack administrative, legislative, or judicial support in managing offender computer use.

If the situation continues, I fear it will not be long before supervision conditions that manage cyber-risk, such as computer searches and/or monitoring, will merely be window dressing. They will not be able to be implemented by agencies—which lack the equipment, training and resources to use them effectively.

Agencies looking to resolve the situation must first comprehend the requirements to effectively managing offender cyber-risk. A good starting point is the American Probation and Parole Association's 2011 Issue Paper on the topic. Agencies should then:

  • Consider what their current resources are and what is still needed in the way of equipment and officer training to effectively address cyber-risk;
  • Establish a realistic path to narrowing and hopefully eliminating any identified resource or training gaps; and
  • Communicate with courts and parole authorities about their resources and abilities so that conditions are more closely tailored to what an agency can realistically implement.

Agencies should understand that evolving technology and cyber-risk behaviors requires that this evaluation process be ongoing. Agencies must also grasp that cyberspace behaviors often have implications in the “brick and mortal” world and we can no longer discount them. Hopefully, it is not too late and community correction agencies concerned about protecting citizens will adapt to these 21st Century challenges.

Art Bowker has over 28 years’ experience in law enforcement/corrections and is recognized as an expert in managing cyber-risk in offender populations. In addition to co-writing Investigating Internet Crimes, 1st Edition: An Introduction to Solving Crimes in Cyberspace, (Syngress, 2013), he is also the author of The Cybercrime Handbook for Community Corrections: Managing Offender Risk in the 21st Century. (Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, Ltd. 2012) He welcomes comments from readers.

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