Criminal Specialization as a Corollary of Rational Choice

Criminality as Rational Choice

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Criminal Specialization as a Corollary of Rational Choice

Rational choice theory can provide a basis for a amalgamated and inclusive theory of behavior related to cybercrime. Rational choice centers on instrumental rationality [1]. This is the choice of the most efficient and effective means to achieve a set of particular ends. These ends include the acquisition of wealth or other scarce resources. The decision of an individual or criminal group to engage in socially detrimental criminal activity is not based on social deviance, but rather a perceived rational choice that such activities are most likely to provide the desired outcome. Cohen [7] asserted that conduct is rational if it involves the choice of means to achieve an end.

Grabosky [18] argued that cybercrime reflects any other profit based criminal activity. In this way it can be explained by three factors, motive, opportunity and an absence of capable governance or guardianship. Any one of these can be shown to increase the costs associated with criminal actions and hence reduce the profitability of cybercrime. This reflects the state of mind of the ‘rational criminal’.

Rational choice theory assumes that an agent can be modeled as Homo economicus [2]. This is an individualistic passive agent who is moved by the conditions experienced. These experiences and circumstances coupled with the rational agents assumptions lead to a series of rational choices that are believed to be optional by the agent, but may be detrimental to society as a whole [19]. ‘Rational man’ is thus an ‘economic man’. Instrumental rationality is used by the rational agent to gauge the ends and means that establish the actions used to plot one’s course through life [6]. Choice involves an active progression in which each agent evaluates (consciously or subconsciously) the benefits and costs, and then makes a continuing series of conscious decisions [12]. Each agent reflects on his or her current circumstances as evaluated against the attainment of his or her goals as a set of composite goods. That agent alone can establish whether the price can be afforded [2].

Rational choice theory is based on the assumption an agent as Homo economicus holds particular sets of discrete, fixed, hierarchical predilections [24]. The assumption is that the agent will select the action with the preferred outcome. This outcome (if achieved) optimizes the difference between the costs and benefits [6] associated with the action. Rationality is achieved in a series of actions that remain consistent with the agent’s stable preference rankings in a manner that is designed to return the optimal relation between the goals and beliefs of the agent [17]. This ideally returns the largest set of composite goods (as determined by the rational agent) for the lowest cost.

Actions including crime can be ‘rational’ for agents at the individual level. These when combined across a group coalesce to generate a variety of systemic social outcomes. At times (such as may result from cyber-terror and DDoS attacks), many of the ill effects are intended by agents. More often, the result is an unintended consequence that may be either socially optimal or more commonly socially non-optimal [8]. Ill effects from the actions of socially focused agents (such as police and ‘white-hat’ hackers taking vigilante action) can also frequently result in unintended sub-optimal social responses.

Present crime statistics for cybercrime more correctly reflect the political state than the actual extent of computer based crime [8]. This is a direct consequence of both low reporting and response rates. Many organizations fail to report any computer based incidents. This can result through a lack of knowledge of the event, a desire to avoid potentially adverse publicity or related consequences or a failure to meet an economically or legislatively set minimum loss value. These factors undervalue the losses to criminal activity.

Crime is explained by three factors, motive, opportunity and an absence of capable governance or guardianship. An increase in defenses that lowers the effect of any of these factors moves the amount of composite goods that can be obtained by the cybercriminal for any set level of criminal activity [20]. The rational choices made by agents considering criminal actions are decreased through a combination of price policy and benevolence policy. This applies at both a societal level and to individual organizations where increased defenses lower an organizations probability of attack by making their competitors more attractive lower cost opportunities.

©2007-11 Craig Wright

Posted by Dr. Craig Wright on his GSE Compliance blog on 22 January 2011.

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