Cyberpunk Increases Our Fear of Cybercrime

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Last week, experts at a Sicilian conference on planetary emergencies warned us to expect certain doom from cyberattacks, an apparent time bomb that could come from any one of the billions of minds ticking away on Planet Earth. But according to Cybercrime and the Culture of Fear: Social science fiction(s) and the production of knowledge about cybercrime, a paper published this summer by University of Leeds criminal justice professor David S. Wall, not only is the threat of cybercrime is grossly exaggerated, it's "social" science fiction, especially cyberpunk, that planted the seeds of this misplaced dread. Is the genre really to blame for the tendency to regard every 15 year-old with a computer as a possible threat to global security? We take a look at Wall's report.At the heart of Wall's argument is that public fears about Internet-based crime are overblown, with individuals and the media mythologizing the idea of all-powerful hackers who possess almost mystical abilities to screw up our lives. He claims that the very notion of cybercrime originated in cyberpunk, with the genre creating a universe in which the proliferation of technology is inextricably linked to criminal activity:

The actual point of origin of the term ‘cybercrime' is unclear, but it seems to have emerged in the late 1980s or even early 1990s in the later cyberpunk print and audiovisual media. However, the linkage between cyberspace and crime was implicit in the early cyberpunk short stories by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Bruce Bethke and so many others. The concept was subsequently taken to a wider audience in popular contemporary novels such as Gibson's ‘Sprawl' trilogy of Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) and Stephenson's Snowcrash (1992). Cyberpunk effectively defined cybercrime as a harmful activity that takes place in virtual environments and made the ‘hi-tech low-life' hacker narrative a norm in the entertainment industry. It is interesting to note at this point, that whilst social theorists were adopting the Barlovian model of cyberspace, it was the Gibsonian model that shaped the public imagination through the visual media.

Wall doesn't believe that a computer-fearing populace is picking up William Gibson and immediately threatening to go luddite. Rather, he claims that the problem lies in the sort of films these stories inspire: so-called latter-day "haxploitation" flicks in which the Internet enables disaffected genius outsiders to engage in novel and devastating forms of crime:

The ‘factional' images described above, skilfully combine fact with fiction, and have crystallized the ‘super-hacker' offender stereotype as the archetypal ‘cybercriminal' (Wall 2007, p. 16). Moreover, the combination of independent ‘outsider' and the potential power they can yield also sets up the hacker as a potential folk devil, which is precisely what the hacker became (Nissenbaum 2004).


According to Wall, cyberpunk has led to the portrayal of technologically-engendered criminal actions as "dramatic, futuristic and dystopic" and cyberspace as "pathologically unsafe and criminogenic." And he claims that this image of online crime, as well as the notion of the "omnipotent hacker" has bled into even government perceptions of the problem. He cites a 2007 House of Lords report in which cybercriminals are described as highly organized, highly skilled bogeymen who have wreak untold havoc on the less technologically apt. But Wall never draws a clear line between fictional portrayals of cybercrime and public misconceptions as to its nature. And eventually his paper turns to several more likely sources of trouble, including misreporting of incidents and media exaggeration of cybercrime:

News reporting tends to simultaneously feed the public's lust for ‘shocking' information, but also feeds off it - the relationship is dynamic rather than causal. This endless demand for sensationalism sustains the confusion of rhetoric with reality to create, what Baudrillard described as "le vertige de la realité" or "dizzying whirl of reality" (1998, p. 34). By blurring predictions about ‘what could happen' with ‘what is actually happening' the message is given by various media that novel events are far more prevalent than they really are. Once a ‘signal event', such as a novel form of cybercrime, captures media attention and heightens existing public anxiety then other news sources will feed off the original news story and it will spread virally across cyberspace. In such manner, relatively minor events can have significant impacts upon public beliefs compared with their actual consequences, especially when they result in panics and moral panics (Cohen, 2002; Garland, 2008).


And the lack of public understanding regarding actual instances of hacking:

For many years the face of the super-hacker was Kevin Mitnick until he was eventually caught and jailed. His own account (Mitnick and Simon 2002) usefully deconstructs his own myth. His account reminds us that at the height of hacker mystique in the 1980s and 1990s overall levels of security were much lower than today. It was not uncommon at the time, for example, to find systems with a default user identity of ‘Admin' being accompanied by the password ‘Admin'. Where security was tighter, the majority of deep level penetration was and still is the result of ‘social engineering' - persuading those in low level occupations within an organisation to reveal their access codes (Mitnick and Simon 2002).


It seems that cyberpunk's greatest crime is that it may have inspired a handful of thrillers that are technically science fiction but fail to identify as such. And while those thrillers may make the cybercrime bulletins passed around via email or reports of cybercriminals targeting foreign governments more plausible, so too does a media intent on sexing up its crime reporting. It seems the real culprit behind disproportionate public fears about cybercrime is not the invention of a few technologically advanced dystopias, but a lack of technological understanding. And hunger for that sort of technological understanding is exactly what cyberpunk inspires. Cybercrime and the Culture of Fear [Social Science Research Network] (Via SF Signal)