Surian Soosay



Bias in Law Enforcement: Cybersecurity and White Collar Crime

Most people probably associate cyber-crime with issues of national security—what with Russia dominating so much space in the headlines, lately. However, cybersecurity breaches can have a palpable and damaging effect on everyday individuals, due to how often they’re tied to corporate security breaches involving highly sensitive personal information like credit card numbers, social security numbers, and contact information.

The Department of Justice defines white collar crime as “nonviolent crime for financial gain committed by means of deception”—think embezzlement, pyramid schemes, and cyber-crime (e.g. infiltration via ransomware). Although there have been few studies conducted on the after effects of white collar crime upon its victims, studies point to an increased level of anxiety and depression—both of which can be life-altering and debilitating.

Moreover, according to the University of Cincinnati, “Experts have estimated that cybercrime costs more than $400 billion annually, representing a share of about one half of 1 percent of Earth’s entire estimated GDP.” Considering this not-unsubstantial financial impact, one would think that local law enforcement agencies would show more interest in preventing cyber-crime.

However, because of the difficulty in acquiring all the relevant and necessary information, as well as the lack of physical immediacy associated with more tangible, blue-collar, or violent crime, comprehensive cybersecurity-related law enforcement remains a challenge, on the public level.

One reason for this may be because white collar crime remains relatively unrepresented in criminological literature. For example, “Of 4,878 articles examined in 15 leading criminology and criminal justice journals, only 289 (6.3 percent) focused on white collar crime.” Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that white collar crimes are still not treated as seriously as more traditional street crimes.

To add to the problem, local law enforcement agencies seem more interested in focusing their resources on, say, investing in predictive policing software—perhaps because it’s more statistically easy to understand and more generally tangible than cybersecurity programs. However, these predictive policing programs are highly problematic since they tend to disproportionately target minorities, and their methods and algorithms remain mysterious and controversial.

Despite the ever-present risk that independent hackers pose to companies and private citizens alike, 53 percent of Americans seem convinced that Russia represents their biggest cybersecurity threat. Perhaps because of this, more cybersecurity experts seem to exist at the federal level than at the local level—in terms of law enforcement. The Department of Homeland Security remains well-funded and well-staffed, but along with a high level of security comes the sacrifice of personal privacy, as well.

The relatively low numbers of convictions for white collar crimes like cybersecurity breaches via hacking help to further perpetuate racial imbalances in the number of convictions as well as re-entry into the workforce. According to a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, “A conviction makes it hard to get a job: the Justice Department estimates that 60 to 75 percent of former inmates fail to find work within the first year of being released. And yet employment is associated with much lower rates of recidivism.” This tendency prompted a recent measure to “ban the box”—meaning the box to check or not-check asking about previous incarceration or felony convictions—on federal job applications.

Hackers, on the other hand, stand an even better chance of reentering the job market than they did before they learned how to be a good hacker: apparently, more than a third of businesses say “They would have no problem hiring an ex-hacker to compensate for the lack of in-house security skills”—noting, amusingly, that ‘ex-hacker’ is a curious term. What are we to do, then, about the lingering bias against blue collar criminals—as opposed to perpetrators of white collar crimes? “The real solution,” according to Samuel W. Buell, “is to rethink what corruption looks like, both in business and in politics… Until the definition of ‘legal’ is no longer controlled by the people or organizations with the deepest pockets, it’s unlikely that real change will come about.”

We must go on educating ourselves, then, and thinking critically about what we believe constitutes a substantial crime, as well as the best policies to prevent those crimes that may easily fly under the proverbial radar, lest we let them go unnoticed.