Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Cyber Crime: Prosecuting Hackers on a Global Scale

By Arielle TanninPublished October 11, 2015

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Modern warfare is shifting from the physical realm into the digital. Over the past decade, digital weapons have been rapidly advancing and are now capable of disrupting secure databases all over the world. One of the reasons this is a particularly dangerous problem is the inability of governments to effectively prosecute this crime. This makes international cooperation even more essential to ensuring the safety of victims of hacking globally.
By Arielle Tannin, 10/11/15

Modern warfare is shifting from the physical realm into the digital. Over the past decade, digital weapons have been rapidly advancing and are now capable of disrupting secure databases all over the world. One of the reasons this is a particularly dangerous problem is the inability of governments to effectively prosecute this crime. Assistant Attorney General Caldwell stated that, "Hackers often take advantage of international borders and differences in legal systems, hoping to evade extradition to face justice." This makes international cooperation even more essential to ensuring the safety of victims of hacking globally.
 
Cyber attacks pose a major threat to businesses, individual security, and military operations. In July of this year, Chinese hackers stole the personal information of approximately 22 million employees at the Office of Personnel Management, giving them access to confidential files of hundreds of thousands of federal employees. In response, President Obama drafted economic sanctions against Chinese companies believed to have stolen trade secrets from other firms. As hacking techniques become more complex, it is becoming critical to develop concrete actions on how to respond.
 
The ability of hackers to sit at a computer in one country and commit a massive crime in another leads to a very complicated process of prosecution. In particular, this process is extremely time consuming. It can take years to extradite a subject and hold a trial. Hackers know this and can plan accordingly to evade being tried. It may be beneficial to establish an interim sentence that prevents the hacker from engaging in illegal activities before a formal trial is held.
 
Another issue regarding virtual crimes is the distinction between cyber-espionage and state-sponsored theft. The former is pardoned if conducted by the military for purposes relating to national security while the latter is purely self-serving. The question that policy makers must answer is how to define what type of action falls into each category. It is important to adopt strict guidelines in determining what is an act of cyber terrorism and what can be justified as protecting national security.
 
The most pressing facet of this problem to address is cyber-security. Ensuring that businesses are educated about how to protect their data is critical to avoiding these attacks. However, as hackers become more sophisticated, this may be an insufficient measure. It is therefore important to consider action the American government can take to thwart these attacks. Economic sanctions may not be the best course of action, seeing as they would have little effect on the Chinese economy, which already trades with so many other parts of the world. A more diplomatic approach may be beneficial to quell the tensions between these two countries.