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Cybercrime: A social ecology

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Collier, Ben 


From its roots as niche technically-driven crimes and online subcultures, cybercrime and online harm now dominate public debates. This chapter examines cybercrime from a criminological perspective, setting out foundational debates and contemporary controversies. We set the scene by tackling the question: what is cybercrime? We lay out foundations of the field, discussing whether cybercrime is a novel criminological phenomenon, and critically reviewing classic typologies. We distinguish cybercrime from hacking, discussing changes in the Internet and online harms. It is increasingly difficult to differentiate a ‘cyberspace’ given the digital technologies and infrastructures pervading contemporary societies.

We outline core aspects of cybercrime as a subject of scholarship, describing tools, technologies and practices associated with online deviance. We show how these link to the broader cybercrime economy. We discuss anonymity technologies and encryption, then move to less-technical practices supporting online crime through social deception. This section concludes with an overview of the wider implications of online harm, including leaks from the vast databases of sensitive information held by large companies about us, and corporate and white-collar crimes facilitated by technology.

The next section explores the broader ecology of online offending - the communities associated with cybercrime. We sketch the online deviant subculture literature, discussing the historic significance of the ‘hacker ethic’ to offenders’ self-image. We discuss the sites these deviant subcultures interact - hacker conferences, chat channels, social media, forums, and underground marketplaces. We outline the roles around which deviant communities are structured, and the pathways in and out of them, reflecting critically on opportunities and challenges for desistance. We draw out links between the cybercrime literature, classic subcultural criminology, and the study of youth crime and deviance, asking if cybercrime is simply an online form of juvenile delinquency.

The last section discusses how various groups deal with these harms with varying levels of success. The landscape of enforcement and control for cybercrime is generally delocalised from the police, organised around polycentric networks or ‘nodal’ governance. These include a range of public, private, and third sector organisations arrayed in national and international coalitions. Traditional police forces face capacity issues, giving rise to centralised agencies such as the FBI and the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), international collaborative bodies, and security services. We discuss private sector actors: platforms and private security companies. We draw out the foundations of a critical perspective on cybercrime policing - increasingly securitised, ‘high-policing’, and anti-democratic, and its implications. We conclude by sketching potential futures of cybercrime scholarship within the broader field of criminology.



Cybercrime: A social ecology


Is Part Of

Oxford Handbook of Criminology

Book type

Edited volume


Oxford University Press

Publisher DOI

Publisher URL


European Commission Horizon 2020 (H2020) ERC (949127)