A new view of cybercrime

There is too great a focus on the ‘human factor’ in the way we deal with cybercrime. But the technology actually plays a deciding role, says Wytske van der Wagen.
By Thijmen Hatt / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Earlier this year, the websites for several Dutch banks crashed. What happened? A DDoS attack – the servers were accessed by a large number of computers simultaneously. The criminals responsible used so-called ‘botnets’: a network of thousands of computers infected with virus software the owners often don’t know is there.

Last month the FBI dismantled a botnet that had infected more than half a million computers. Attacks by botnets are lasting longer than ever – twelve days, in some cases – and are increasingly common.

But arresting the ‘bot herder’ (the person organising the attack) doesn’t solve the problem. ‘Fighting this type of crime doesn’t just involve arresting the perpetrator; you also have to disrupt the botnet’s entire infrastructure. If you don’t, the computers involved remain infected, and the botnet continues to operate’, says Wytske van der Wagen. Van der Wagen will get her PhD for her research into cybercrime on 14 June.

Pre-digital age

The methods we use to fight crime were born in a pre-digital era. Naturally, the focus was on the criminal, the human actor, and not on some additional technological dimension. But Van der Wagen feels this should change if our efforts to fight cybercrime are going to be successful.

‘That’s why I approach cybercrime with the ‘actor network theory’. This theory states that both human beings and technology are taking action.’

As such, Van der Wagen prefers the term ‘cyborg crime’ over ‘cybercrime’. This phrase illuminates how technology and people are intertwined. Technology will become increasingly autonomous, Van der Wagen thinks. ‘The technology will play a more active role, with the human role diminishing or even dwindling to nothing. This means human beings are no longer the central actors.’

Virtual theft

Botnets are not the only example of this shift in crime. Think, for example, of ransomware or virtual theft. Technology plays a large role in these crimes as well. And tracking down the actors in these crimes is very complicated.

Perhaps, says Van der Wagen, it would be a better idea to talk about prevention and control rather than punishment. ‘Closing a website might be more productive than catching the perpetrator’, she says.

In light of the current technological developments, prevention is even more important. Who knows what types of cybercrime are on the horizon? There is currently a rat race between technological developments and combating their abuses. Hackers are becoming ever more creative.


Ransomware and DDoS attacks might be our biggest problems right now, but what about the possibility of neuro-hacking? ‘That’s a method that maliciously extracts information, such as your banking info, from people’s brains’, says Van der Wagen. It’s not impossible that in the near future, even our brains will be connected to devices.

End users might not think about the underlying technology involved, but hackers will. And these neurocriminals could literally hack our brains the way they now hack our computers.


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