Law enforcement is one of the many occupational areas where use of computers, software, and internet technology has had a major impact. These emerging technologies have touched all aspects of the crime investigation process and have provided efficiencies in time savings, increased accuracy, and increased access to information that was previously difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. Specifically, investigation has been altered at all stages of the process but particularly the gathering of information stage and the interview stage (Keisler, Daley, & Hagy, 2007). This paper will briefly discuss changes imparted by the use of emerging technology in these two investigative stages.
However, there is another impact on law enforcement with these technologies. Specifically, criminals are now using these technologies to aid and cover up traditional crimes as well as commit new crimes using the technology, referred to as cybercrime. This paper will also briefly review how the technology has been adopted by criminals and comment on how this complicates the investigative process for law enforcement. Finally, the paper will close with overviews of two cases illustrating this two-sided role for emerging technologies in law enforcement, one within the investigative process and the other within criminal activities.
A preliminary step for crime investigation is the gathering of information. Law enforcement personnel now have widespread availability of searchable databases of information, both public and private. One of first and now most common collections within such databases is information concerning identity. Databases storing information such as fingerprints, DNA, and photos for use in photo recognition matching are now all routinely used to identify those involved in a crime, whether from the perpetrator or victim side (Timberg & Nakashima, 2013). Further, information concerning a person’s background is routinely accessed, such as vehicle and driving records, criminal records, and financial information. Finally, another area where gathering information has been altered by technology is the new field of predictive policing. By focusing police attention to the times and places where crimes are most likely to be committed, as indicated by mathematical analysis of past crime data, the initial reaction by law enforcement has been that crime is truly being prevented before it even occurs (Adams, 2012).
But for all the changes in the investigative process, criminals have also seen the usefulness in emerging technology to commit and cover-up crimes, making the technology a hindrance to public safety. Cybercrime is defined as crimes where a computer is the target of the crime, where a computer is a tool of the crime, and crimes where a computer is incidental to the commission of the crime (Brenner, 2010). Cybercrimes have had a major impact on law enforcement as traditional methods of investigating crime are often not effective. In particular, the lack of physical proximity to the crime by the criminal, the often larger scale of these crimes, and the easier anonymity for the criminal during the crime commission all contribute to older investigative processes being ineffective (Brenner, 2010).
There are other conditions that make cybercrimes so effective besides those discussed above. First, there is relatively little publicity about such crimes, because the responsibility for stopping them often lies with trusted institutions such as banks and credit card companies. Although security experts and law enforcement officials are well aware of such crimes, the general public is less informed in order to keep up appearances. Second, people tend to be more vulnerable in the online world, as its nature means people take it less seriously or less cynically than in the real world. The relative success of the Nigerian prince e-mail phishing scams are testimony to this incongruity (Brenner, 2010). Thus, these characteristics of cybercrime make it more difficult for law enforcement to investigate and prosecute than more traditional property crimes.
A court case where computers played a key role in the investigation process is the murder trial of Dr. Thomas Murray in Lawrence, KS. Dr. Murray was accused of killing his wife from whom he had separated (Leibowitz, 2010). Two different pieces of technological evidence were extremely helpful in obtaining a conviction in this case, which was admittedly circumstantial. First, there was the record of Dr. Murray’s nine hour interrogation which included suspicious admissions. A second piece of technological evidence was the computer searches on Dr. Murray’s computer for “how to hire a hit man” and “undetectable poisons.” Although he argued that he was doing research for a TV script, the jury evidently did not believe this. Evidence was also presented that he used the internet to find a way to the victim’s house without passing a camera. This plus other pieces of circumstantial evidence were enough for the jury to convict. Without the technological evidence, this outcome would have been even more uncertain (Leibowitz, 2010).
A court case where a computer crime played an important role is the Supreme Court case of United States v. Ivanov (Jahnke, 2005). This 2001 case stands for the proposition that U.S. courts have the power to hear charges related to computer crimes aimed at U.S. businesses performed over the internet even if the actor is located overseas. While located in Russia, Ivanov had hacked into U.S. business databases to steal goods and identities. A possible lack of reach of the U.S. courts to defendants overseas is an example of one of the difficulties that can face law enforcement when trying to prosecute cybercrimes. After he lost his initial motion, Ivanov ultimately pled guilty, but the Supreme Court decision allowing reach of the U.S. courts overseas has helped law enforcement overcome this issue with future cybercrime cases.
The practice of crime investigation has been undeniably altered by the use of emerging technologies. Gathering of information and interview practice has been made less time consuming and more effective with the use of computers and the internet. But computers also have aided criminals, and crimes of this type present significant challenges to law enforcement. Two cases illustrating these characteristics are the murder conviction of Dr. Thomas Murray and the hacker trial of Vladimirovich Ivanov. Overall, I do believe that if used effectively, computers can be used to solve cybercrimes, so the overall effect on society is a benefit. But law enforcement must be willing to move quickly into technology, get the proper training, and invest the money needed in order to stay ahead of the next wave of cybercrime.
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Keisler, P. D., Daley, C. K., & Hagy, D. W. (2007). Investigative uses of technology: Devices, tools, and techniques. U.S. Department of Justice. [Special report]. Retrieved from
Leibowitz, B. (2010). Book ‘em: Language of evil. [Book review]. CBS News.
Timberg, C. & Nakashima, E. (2013 June 16). State photo-ID databases become troves for police. The Washington Post. Retrieved from