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The Advent of the Computer Delinquent.

In Chesterfield County, Virginia, a 16-year-old pleaded guilty to computer trespassing for hacking into an Internet provider's system, causing $20,000 in damage. [1] Five boys, ages 14 to 17, pleaded guilty to charges stemming from counterfeiting money on one of the youth's home computers. [2] A 14-year-old boy in Mount Prospect, Illinois, pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography after downloading child pornographic images onto his computer. [3] Five juveniles faced federal adjudication [4] for hacking into computers at the Pentagon and NASA, accidentally shutting down an airport's runway lights, and stealing passwords from an Internet provider. [5]

These and other incidents illustrate the types of computer delinquency [6] that have become commonplace in a technologically advanced society. What has led to this problem, and what can the law enforcement community do to deter those of today's youth who have grasped the computer's usefulness in committing serious acts of delinquency?

Factors Contributing to Computer Delinquency

With the advent of the 21St century, new avenues of delinquency have begun to develop with each technological advance. Four factors contribute to these new avenues. First, today's youth possess more technological knowledge than any previous generation. They have grown up with the personal computer and the Internet. Due to this exposure, today's young people can conceive readily of the potential for both legitimate and illegitimate computer use.

Next, some evidence points to an apparent ethical deficit in today's youth, concerning appropriate computer use. For example, a 1997 study of undergraduate college students revealed that a substantial number had pirated software. [7] Many of these students had gained illegal access to a computer system to either browse or exchange information. These findings proved similar to those of another study done 5 years earlier. The 1997 analysis further concluded that parents, and even teachers, may have advocated certain computer crimes, particularly software piracy. The study also noted that youths involved in computer crime, similar to other types of deviance, appeared to learn this behavior through interaction with their peers.

Additionally, the peer groups that juveniles interact with have changed from school and neighborhood friends to a literal "global community." Unfortunately, this larger peer group contains hundreds of chat rooms, news groups, and Web sites advocating pedophilia, drugs, and hate and racist groups, along with information on identity falsification, credit card and check fraud, and computer hacking. Through these peer contacts, many juveniles learn about and support computer crimes.

Finally, computers themselves make successful completion of certain acts of delinquency possible. Specifically, computer use over the Internet can conceal age and provide a degree of anonymity that did not exist previously. Youths not old enough to operate a motor vehicle can use their computers--in their own bedrooms, after curfew--to break into a system in another country. While in the past children may have had difficulty making fraudulent purchases, today they can go on-line and easily purchase those same age-restricted items by avoiding any suspicions based on their youthful appearance. The computer also greatly facilitates their escape after the fraud becomes known. The power of the computer makes counterfeiting or check fraud, offenses that once required expensive equipment and extensive expertise, literally "child's play."

As all of these factors have come together, the number of juveniles who have direct access to a computer and the Internet has risen sharply. According to the Office of Justice Programs, more than 28 million children currently go on-line, and industry experts predict that more than 45 million young people will use the Internet by 2002. [8] Other projections indicate that by the year 2002, almost 80 percent of American teenagers will have access to on-line material. [9] This analysis also reveals that many parents do not provide careful oversight of this computer use. For example, depending on the age group (either from 11 through 15 or 16 through 18 years of age), 38 percent of the parents of the younger group and 9 percent of the parents of the older group reported that they sit with their children while they are on-line.

Sixty-eight percent of parents of on-line children between the ages of 11 and 15 said that they know which Web sites their children visit, while 43 percent of the parents of the 16- to 18-year-olds reported similar knowledge. In addition, 54 percent of the parents of the younger group revealed that they permit unlimited on-line access for their children, while 75 percent of the parents of the older children said that they allowed such computer usage. [10]

Costs of Computer Delinquency

The losses or damages that a delinquent can inflict have changed dramatically due to society's increasing dependence on computers. Traditionally, the actions of a single delinquent would cause very few losses, injuries, or deaths. In the past, for example, it proved almost impossible for a juvenile delinquent to steal the amount of funds that a white collar criminal, such as an embezzler, could purloin. Today, however, a delinquent easily can use a computer to facilitate a five-figure or other high-tech crime. The potential for disaster when a juvenile hacker disrupts or manipulates safety functions, such as traffic signals, air traffic control, floodgates, or power grids, constitutes an even more troubling prospect.

Indirect costs of computer delinquency also require noting. "Innocent" juvenile exploration into computer systems can cause expensive systems to crash and inflict financial burdens to restore them. The prevalence of computer intrusions causes companies to take additional security measures and obtain special computer insurance, adding to the cost of goods and services. Computer delinquency also wastes investigative resources that agencies could better employ. For instance, an attack against defense computers could represent the work or juvenile "exploring" or an adult terrorist bent on destroying systems or stealing technology. Frequently, it takes a costly investigation to determine the suspects and their motives.

The jurisdictional concerns of technological crimes also makes adjudicating computer delinquents even more complicated than a typical delinquency case. Normally, adjudicating a delinquent takes place at the local level. Issues revolve around keeping the case in the juvenile court system or, if serious enough, a referral to the adult system. Typically, few juvenile cases involve multiple jurisdictions. However, a juvenile hacker can cross state boundaries and even international boundaries with the click of a mouse. Moreover, it is not inconceivable for future juvenile offenders to cause an international incident for hacking into an unfriendly foreign country's computer. The jurisdictional questions can begin to mount. Who handles these cases, the local authorities where the juvenile resides or the state or country of the target computer? Would federal prosecutors have an interest in the case? Who decides which jurisdiction will prosecute the case or whether the charge will be made in a juvenile or adult court ?

Finally, some computer delinquents could become adult computer offenders. For example, several of the more infamous computer offenders began their criminal careers as juveniles. [11] Also, research has shown that "...persons involved in computer crimes acquire their interest and skills at an early age. They are introduced to computers in school, and their usual 'career path' starts with illegally copying computer programs. Serious offenders then get into a progression of computer crimes including telecommunications fraud (making free long distance calls), unauthorized access to other computers (hacking for fun and profit), and credit card fraud (obtaining cash advances, purchasing equipment through computers)." [12] Therefore, the entire criminal justice community must not ignore or downplay the significance of computer delinquency because these "wayward youths" may present future problems when they enter adulthood.

Law Enforcement Considerations

To effectively deal with the computer delinquent, law enforcement officers must make adequate preparations. They must not forget their skills and rules of evidence/procedure that they employ in investigating traditional delinquent behavior. Just because youngsters have mastered computer skills does not mean that they can comprehend their actions as against the law. For example, a 9-year-old who scans money for a school project does not warrant the same response as a 15-year-old who counterfeits and passes money. Investigators must establish that delinquents have some knowledge that their behavior is problematic. Do the delinquents conceal their computer actions from adults? Have they used passwords and encryption to protect their systems? Did they erase or destroy files to conceal their actions? What motivated them to commit the acts? Did they profit from their behavior? Was their offense committed to finance other delinquent behavior (e.g., drug use)? Have the youths exhibited similar behavior, either with or without a computer? What if officers uncover evidence on the youths' computers that indicate the delinquents have broken laws in several states or countries? Having answers to these questions will prepare law enforcement officers to present their findings to the appropriate parties for adjudication of the delinquents.

The issue of child pornography and the computer delinquent raises additional concerns for law enforcement officers. How should they respond to a 15-year-old male who has pornographic images of a 16-year-old female on his computer? What if this 15-year-old male is distributing these images to his friends? What about the 15-year-old male with pornographic images of an 8-year-old female on his computer? Where are they getting the images? Is an adult involved? Is the youth a victim of abuse? Law enforcement officers, in consultation with prosecutors, should consider such scenarios before they have to face them.

Law enforcement officers also should take a preventive approach to computer delinquency. Because of its potential to create havoc, computer delinquency warrants a serious preventive program aimed at the school-age child. In addition, the typical computer investigation is very time consuming and costly. Hence, the prevention of even one such investigation justifies the focus on educating youths regarding computer ethics. Researchers agree. "At one level, basic principles of computer ethics can be instilled in children (and adults) from the time of their initial introduction to information technology.

A greater emphasis on computer ethics in school curricula might also contribute to heightened ethical awareness over time. Training in computing should be accompanied by an ethical component; information making it clear that intrusion and destruction is costly and harmful to individual human beings, and to society in general, not merely to amorphous organizations." [13]

Fortunately, basic tools exist for officers to use in developing a preventive program for children. Specifically, in 1991, the Computer Learning Foundation (CLF) and the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice began emphasizing the need to teach responsible computer use to children. The CLF began disseminating information to schools on methods for teaching children to become responsible computer users and developed the Code of Responsible Computing. In addition, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FBI have Web sites [14] that contain information for children about appropriate computer use. DOJ's Web site also has a lesson plan for elementary and middle school teachers to use when covering computer crime and ethics with their students. Law enforcement officers could use these same materials to develop outreach programs for schools in their communities. Such programs also could include "cyber-safety" tips to ensure that children do not fall victim to predators on the Internet.


The 21st century promises many technological changes for law enforcement. While some of these alterations will benefit the criminal justice community, such as the use of mapping technologies to determine crime trends, others, such as the emergence of computer delinquency, will produce negative challenges. Only by recognizing early on that computer delinquency is a serious matter that inflicts financial and ethical burdens on society can the criminal justice system hope to effectively handle these youths before they become master computer criminals.


(1.) Arthur L. Bowker, "Juveniles and Computers: Should We Be Concerned?" Federal Probation 63, no. 2 (December 1999): 40-43.

(2.) "Students Fined for Funny Money: Sentences Suspended in Butler," Cincinnati Enquirer, April 8, 1999.

(3.) Supra note 1.

(4.) Federal prosecution of juveniles rarely occurs because 18 U.S.C. [sections] 5032 requires that a "substantial federal interest" exists and the state does not have or refuses to assume jurisdiction; the state does not have adequate services or programs for juveniles; or the offense is a violent felony, drug trafficking or importation, or is a firearms offense.

(5.) Supra note 1.

(6.) In this article, computer delinquency refers to any delinquent act or criminal behavior committed by a juvenile where a computer was the tool used in the offense, was the target of a delinquent act, or contained evidence of a delinquent act.

(7.) A.M. Fream and W.F. Skinner, "Social Learning Theory Analysis of Computer Crime Among College Students," Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 24, no. 4 (November 1997): 495-518.

(8.) U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, New Grants to Combat Internet Grimes Against Children, May 17, 2000; available from http.//; accessed October 11, 2000.

(9.) "Peril and Promise: Teens by the Numbers," Newsweek, May 10, 1999. 38-39.

(10.) Ibid.

(11.) For specific examples, see Shimomura, Tsutomu, and Markoff, Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnick, America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw (New York, NY: Hyperion, 1996), 370-372; Joshua Quittner and Michelle Statalla, Masters of Deception: The Gang that Ruled Cyberspace (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1996); and Katie Hafner and John Markoff, Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995), 276-321.

(12.) J. Thomas MeEwen, "Computer Ethics," National Institute of Justice Reports (January/February 1991): 8-10.

(13.) P.N. Grabosky and Russell G. Smith, Crime in the Digital Age (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1998), 59.

(14.) DOJ's Web site is, and the FBI's Web site is; accessed October 11, 2000.

Code of Responsible Computing

Respect for Privacy

I will respect others' right to privacy. I will only access, look in, or use other individuals', organizations', or companies' information on computer or through telecommunications if I have the permission of the individual, organization, or company who owns the information.

Respect for Property

I will respect others' property. I will only make changes to or delete computer programs, files, or information that belong to others, if I have been given permission to do so by the person, organization, or company who owns the program, file, or information.

Respect for Ownership

I will respect others' rights to ownership and to earn a living from their work. I will only use computer software, files, or information that I own or that I have been given permission to borrow. I will only use software programs that have been paid for or are in the public domain. I will only make a backup copy of computer programs I have purchased or written and will only use it if my original program is damaged. I will only make copies of computer files and information that I own or have written. I will only sell computer programs which I have written or have been authorized to sell by the author. I will pay the developer or publisher for any shareware programs I decide to use.

Respect for Others and the Law

I will only use computers, software, and related technologies for purposes that are beneficial to others, that are not harmful (physically, financially, or otherwise) to others or others' property, and that are within the law.

Source: Computer Learning Foundation (; accessed October 11, 2000.
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Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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