Why Law Enforcement Can't Stop Hackers

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Chval realizes that judges have to strike a balance when sentencing young hackers: They don't want to be overly harsh on defendants who are essentially kids, not hardened criminals, with no prior offenses. Nor do they want to overreach with draconian sentences designed to send a message to other young hackers simply because law enforcement doesn't have the resources to investigate and prosecute all of these cybercrime cases, says Chval. But, he adds, striking this balance comes at the expense of deterring other young people from computer crimes.

"Obviously, kids aren't getting the message about the seriousness of cybercrime, of hacking," he says.

Hacking: A Social Problem

Chval and Rogers believe that the individuals the FBI arrested this summer for their alleged involvement with Anonymous will get harsher sentences if convicted because they taunted, embarrassed and attacked government Websites and financial institutions. Prosecutors may finally have their opportunity to exemplify these young hackers as a cautionary tale.

But for law enforcement to have any real impact staunching cybercrime, experts agree they need to raise the public's awareness that hacking is a real crime with real victims.

Part of the reason hackers, particularly the younger ones, get lenient sentences is because judges have to weigh a potential backlash if the public sees them as being too harsh for sending "a college kid who made a mistake" to federal prison for five years, says Chval. The potential public relations backlash suggests that the public doesn't understand the severity of these crimes, he adds.

"Parents need to talk to their kids about [illegal] music downloading," says Chval. "It's all part of the same realm. A kid who doesn't see anything wrong with downloading music he hasn't paid for probably wouldn't see much wrong with taking credit card numbers. It's a slippery slope when you start down that path."

Indeed, adds Rogers, the problem with hackers is that they don't see their activity as criminal. "They never see the victims. They never see the impact. All they see is the technology," he says. "For the most part, these people understand right and wrong. They wouldn't rob a bank or engage in other deviant criminal activities, but as soon as technology is involved, that line dividing what's right from what's wrong gets really distorted."

For that reason, Rogers would like to see classes on ethical computer behavior taught in elementary, middle and high school.

"If we only rely on law enforcement and the legal system to solve the problem, it's never going to happen," says Rogers. "This is a cultural problem. It's an education and awareness problem. It's an ethical problem."

Meridith Levinson covers Careers, Project Management and Outsourcing for CIO.com. Follow Meridith on Twitter @meridith. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Meridith at mlevinson@cio.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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