ISSN 0265-5527, pp. 387–399
Just Another Case of
Lecturer in Criminology, School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent at Canterbury
Abstract: Recent discussions of computer ‘hacking’ make explicit reference to the disproportionate involvement of juveniles in this form of computer crime. While criminal justice, computer security, public and popular reﬂections on hacking seldom refer to formal criminological analyses of youth offending, they nonetheless offer a range of explanations for the over-representation of young people amongst computer hackers. Such accounts of hacking can be seen to converge with criminological analyses, by stressing a range of causal factors related to gender psychology, adolescent moral development, family dysfunction and peer-group and subcultural association. The homologies between ‘lay’, ‘administrative’, ‘expert’, ‘popular’ and criminological discourses, it is suggested, offer considerable scope for developing a critical, academically-informed, and policyoriented debate on young people’s participation in computer crime.
It has been noted that ‘youthfulness’ or ‘being a teenager’ appears as ‘a constant source of fascination and concern for politicians, media commentators and academic analysts’ (Muncie 1999, p.2), not least when involvement in supposedly ‘criminal’, ‘deviant’ and ‘anti-social’ activities is concerned. Whenever anxieties erupt about new threats to the moral and social order, ‘youth’ are seldom far away from the line-up of society’s ‘usual suspects’. Society’s perennial fascination with ‘youth and crime’ has itself become the object of sociological and criminological analysis, furnishing numerous explorations of the ways in which young people and their cultural commitments have become the ‘folk devils’ in successive waves of ‘moral panics’ about crime and disorder (Young 1971; Cohen 1972; Hall et al. 1978; Pearson 1983; Hay 1995; Springhall 1998). Since the 1990s, academic commentators have observed how the Internet has emerged as a new locus of criminal activity that has become the object of public and political anxieties, sometimes leading to over-reaction (Thomas and Loader 2000, p.8; Littlewood 2003). Yet again, the category of ‘youth’ has ﬁgured centrally in discussions of the threat, especially in relation to ‘computer hacking’, the unauthorised access to and manipulation of computer systems. Politicians, law enforcement ofﬁcials, computer security
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e xperts and journalists have identiﬁed ‘hacking’ as a form of criminal and deviant behaviour closely associated with ‘teenagers’ (see, inter alia, Bowker 1999; DeMarco 2001; Verton 2002). This association has been cemented in the realm of popular cultural representations, with Hollywood ﬁlms such as Wargames (1983) and Hackers (1995) constructing the hacker as a quintessentially teenage miscreant (Levi 2001, pp.46–7). While hacking in general has garnered considerable attention from academics working in the emergent ﬁeld of ‘cybercrime’ studies (see Taylor 1999, 2000, 2003; Thomas 2000), and some attention has been given to questions of youth (see Furnell 2002), few connections are made with the rich and extensive criminological literature of delinquency studies. On the other hand, those specialising in the study of youth crime and delinquency have largely neglected this apparently new area of juvenile offending (for an exception, see Fream and Skinner 1997). The aim of this article is not to offer such a new account of hacking as ‘juvenile delinquency’; nor is it to contest or ‘deconstruct’ the public and popular association between youth and computer crime. Rather, the article aims to map out the different modes of reasoning by which the purported involvement of...