Friendly neighbourhood cybercrime: online harm in the pandemic and the futures of cybercrime policing

As cybercrime researchers we’re often focused on the globalised aspects of online harms – how the Internet connects people and services around the world, opening up opportunities for crime, risk, and harm on a global scale. However, as we argue in open access research published this week in the Journal of Criminal Psychology in collaboration between the Cambridge Cybercrime Centre (CCC), Edinburgh Napier University, the University of Edinburgh, and Abertay University, as we have seen an enormous rise in reported cybercrime in the pandemic, we have paradoxically seen this dominated by issues with a much more local character. Our paper sketches a past: of cybercrime in a turbulent 2020, and a future: of the roles which state law enforcement might play in tackling online harm a post-pandemic world.

A year of lockdowns and other government responses to the pandemic which have dramatically limited people’s ability to come into contact with one another in person has reshaped the spatial and temporal rhythms and routines of people’s lives and hence the social landscape of crime and harm. Drawing on official statistics and research by the CCC (published in our weekly briefing papers), we argue that we are witnessing a generational change in patterns of crime – in particular, a large increase in volume online harm. This is both due to changes in our routine daily lives, which have shifted many of our day-to-day activities online, and to wider phenomena – increased fear, loneliness, and financial difficulties for huge swathes of the population – all of which make people more vulnerable to fraud and other online harms. 

We argue that this has revealed important ‘local’ qualities of much volume online harm. As aspects of daily life shift to online platforms, the contours and qualities of spatially local communities are increasingly major forces shaping online harm – conflicts and harms which would have taken place in a cafe, a pub, or a club happen online under lockdown. In the paper, we argue that the dramatic increase in online harm to which this is linked (in some senses ‘shifted’ from traditional settings) is likely to precipitate an increase in enforcement – law enforcement moving aspects of the policing of daily life into an online setting. 

As it currently stands, the policing of online space by the state (as opposed to by platforms and other private sector entities) is largely delivered by centralised policing bodies such as the UK’s National Crime Agency and the security services. These agencies moving to a central role in frontline policing online is a serious possibility. Based on current practice in these agencies, this expansion of online control is likely to take the form of ‘preventive’ and ‘smart’ policing, working directly with platforms and local forces. This will entail approaches based in surveillance, intelligence-gathering, and the various behaviourist and influence-based methods associated with the PREVENT duty – what criminologists often term ‘high policing’.

In the article, we argue that the local character of the rise in volume cybercrime also points to a potentially different future, one which doesn’t rely on centralised command or PREVENT-duty approaches taking on frontline online harm reduction. We argue that in fact, local forces are potentially better-equipped to handling many of these issues, and that ‘democratic’ community policing approaches driven by communities themselves could serve these functions in a more accountable and responsive way. This goes against the grain of traditional wisdom in this field, which sees cybercrime and online harm as a ‘globalised’, high policing issue, whose reach and scope make local responses impossible.

Interestingly, we are already seeing evidence of this in Scotland – Police Scotland have recently set up a Centre of Excellence which does exactly this work in beginning to put the policing of online harm as a core part of the local police role  This contrasts with approaches elsewhere in the UK, which are focused around centralised specialist bodies – the NCA opening up cybercrime teams linked to individual English local police forces and the expansion of the PREVENT duty into cybercrime policing. This of course doesn’t mean that local forces are best placed to tackle the NCA’s traditional ‘high policing’ functions – such as online serious and organised crime and complex international harms – nor that these aren’t important aspects of online harm to consider. Where a police officer in the Gorbals finds evidence of a fraud ring operating in Stuttgart, international collaboration between centralised agencies will still be essential. However, important aspects of the response – supporting the victim, spotting community needs and patterns of vulnerability and victimisation, and helping local communities use the Internet in the specific ways they need to safely – are undoubtedly local, requiring tailored, community-specific engagement. Additionally, there are important criticisms to be made of some of the shortcomings of the ‘community’ and ‘local’ model – where parity of justice, inequality of access to justice and accountability, and the broader contested issues with the ‘community’ itself and how this concept scales are concerned.

Speaking only for myself, I see this as something of a stepping-stone argument to a more radical critique of enforcement, control, and harm prevention functions and who in society takes responsibility for them. By conceiving of online harms and responses to them in localised terms, and hence the natural ‘property’ of local policing, I think there is a leap to be made which sees these functions moving out of state and private sector control altogether. This might see these conflicts and harms become (at least in part) the property not of local police forces, but local communities themselves, potentially supported by local technical expert groups (like the universities, colleges, hackspaces, volunteer organisations, and IT mutual aid communities which already do some of this work). I think conceiving these as local issues might additionally help bring these issues into the ambit of scholarship which imagines radical alternative futures of policing.

I’m sure at this point readers will have spotted something crucial missing from this argument – the role of private platforms. Many of the same issues discussed here pertain to issues of content moderation – the role of key concepts like accountability, responsiveness, and democracy, and  how much a platform should balance between centralised, universal approaches versus deep understanding of particular social and cultural contexts for harms and behaviours. There is also the rather contested question (especially given recent events) of the role which online communities have in policing themselves – it’s clear that community self-moderation has done little to stop the development of far-right radical networks, and there is a manifest need for some kind of external regulation. We have focused mostly on the policing response in our paper, but would be delighted to discuss these ideas further – anyone interested (or with comments, criticisms) please do get in touch.

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