The Digital Crime Theories

Information Technology in Criminal Justice[Date]

Having been a victim of a crime, I often ask myself why would someone do it? Apparently, it is a question many have wondered about, analyzed and developed many theories around to help us understand the reasoning behind an individual’s actions. Theories which can be applied to a range of criminal acts both general criminal acts and digital criminal acts our focus today being only the digital criminal acts. What is a digital crime? Digital crimes can be defined as illegal activity done to data or information on computers or networks, as a result cybercrime now also include theft of or damage done to information systems. Having been a victim of a crime before I wanted to know why this person would do such an act and then why was I targeted? Many have researched and theorized this very question why would someone commit a crime? There are many theories a researcher could use to explain the cause of digital crime, but I will attempt to explain two theories. The first being Gottfredson and Hirschi self-control theory which states that criminal acts depend largely on how much self-control an individual, how much can he or she control their own behavior. Their theory proposed that individuals who commit crimes have limited self-control and tend to be impulsive, focused on self-gratification and insensitive.

A second theory known as the learning theory states that criminal behavior is a function of learning, much like anything else but not as a result of the inability to obtain economic success. The differential association theory developed by Sutherland including nine propositions and three different concepts within these propositions.


The first theory, the self-control theory, is based on a social control theory. It is based on a person’s self-control or their ability to control their actions (Taylor, Fritsch, & Liederbach, 2015), this theory explains that a person is likely to commit a crime if they have little self-control. Marcum and associates explains how Gottfredson and Hirschi’s version of the self-control theory emphasizes a person’s environment as both stable, and unlikely to cause an individual to be involved in deviant behavior, or as unstable and a contributing factor to a person’s likeliness to deviate behavior (Marcum, Higgins, Wolfe, & Ricketts, 2011). Based on the self-control theory when a person has limited self-control they are more likely to be risk takers and would prefer easy over harder tasks, in which these traits will cause an inability in the individual to assess consequences of their actions in an accurate manner. This theory might give this as an example, a person who has an unstable family life growing up is likely to participate in deviant behavior as they get older, because they have developed a low self-control type of personality. For a person with low self-control the temptation to pirate illegal movies or music online might win out over their ability to see the consequences as a result. Having low self-control, and it is easier to pirate the movie or music than to go out and spend their money to buy it, they are highly likely to pirate it instead.

The second theory, learning theory is based on the idea that an individual will commit a crime because they have learned the all the necessary skills and things needed to commit a crime (Taylor, Fritsch, & Liederbach). There are four theories based on the learning theory, but here the differential association theory is the one to be discussed. The differential association theory is Sutherland’s take on learning theory, and he believed that deviance is a learned behavior.

In the nine propositions, he touches on three different concepts to explain criminality as a society, an individual, and a group (Mausueda, 2006). He used normative conflict to describe the major cause of crime in society. Sutherland believed that normative conflict could describe how groups define the law as either rules to be followed no matter what, or rules to be broken in some situations. His use of differential association to describe individual act of criminality. His belief that criminality is a process that is learned from the people who are closest to us, and long the way we learn the attitudes and skills as well as justifications for our criminal actions. Sutherland explained group criminal acts by differential social organization. Sutherland explains that groups who are organized in favor of crime, and those organized against it exist side by side and interact in complex ways. In using the example from earlier, pirating music and movies is a widely popular behavior. Applying the learning theory, if an individual is talking with their friends about a new song by an artist they all like and one individual from the group asks if anyone has downloaded the new song yet mentions that they don’t have the money to buy the song from iTunes and, and another person in the group suggests that they just pirate it, since everyone does it. The individual without the means to buy the song is being taught (and learning) that pirating is okay and acceptable since “everyone does it.”

The same concepts can be applied to any type of criminal act. Low self-control contributes to a person being more inclined to steal a candy bar from the store because they want it badly enough, or a person who lashes out and gets violent with another person because they upset them enough. Having low self-control as explained here means your emotions, whether they be anger or excitement, are high you are likely to become uninhibited and act out criminally. The same can be said about the learning theory, that the same concepts can be applied to any type of criminal act. If learning theory is based on the idea that criminal behaviors are learned behaviors, then it would make sense to apply this idea to digital crime, or violent crimes, or any crime type. Violent crime as an example, if a child grows up in a household where their parents are continually arguing and fighting where one is violent towards the other, that child is likely to grow up thinking that this is normal acceptable behavior. They are likely to act out in the same manner.

Another theory that explains the motivation behind digital crime, as well as crime in general is the rational choice theory. This theory generally states that people choose to commit crimes, by exercising their free will, and by taking into account the potential risks versus the benefits of committing the act (Akers, 2012). Applying this to digital crime, a person might weigh the risks and benefits of creating spyware and implementing it. They would probably be inclined to implement it if they thought that the benefits, like gaining people’s personal information in order to get into their online bank account, outweighed the risks. This theory can also be applied to general crime, like for instance car theft. A person would weigh the risks and benefits of stealing a very nice, very expensive car sitting on the side of a busy street, against the risks of getting caught. It is likely the person will choose not to steal the car, because the risk of getting caught is high. An extension of rational choice theory is routine activities theory. The theory generally states that crime occurs when three conditions are present and these conditions are: someone motivated to offend, a relevant target, and absence of prevention. As Taylor, Fritsch and Liederbach (2015) note, routine activities theory is applicable to digital crime because of the sheer volume of people and activity involved with technology and accessing to the Internet. The more people access the Internet, the more likely an individual is to either become a target or be the one targeting someone. Naturally we are creatures of habit, we all have basic routine activities we follow which could leave us vulnerable to crime. For example, an offender who plans to break into a person’s home seeks a suitable target, someone who is likely to be gone during the day. They will study the target to learn their routine, and if all three conditions mentioned earlier are met, they will commit their criminal act.


There are many different theories that attempt to explain deviant behavior. Some of these theories can be applied to crime in general, and some of them can even explain digital crime. It is difficult to be sure of what goes into a decision to commit a crime, and whether or not one theory can clearly define a criminal act, or an offender’s mindset beforehand. It is important to have a good understanding of several theories, in order to apply that knowledge to certain criminal acts.

Akers, R. L. (2013). Criminological Theories. Introduction and Evaluation. 2nd ed. Hoboken: Routledge. ebook. Retrieved from

Marcum, C. D., Higgins, G. E., Wolfe, S. E., & Ricketts, M. L. (2011). Examining the Intersection of Self-control, Peer Association and Neutralization in Explaining Digital Piracy. Western Criminology Review, 12(3), 60-74. Retrieved from

Matsueda, R. L. (2006). Differential social organization, collective action, and crime. Crime Law Soc Change. DOI 10.1007/s10611-006-9045-1 Retrieved from

Taylor, R. W., Fritsch, E. J., & Liederbach, J. (2015). Digital Crime and Digital Terrorism. Third Edition. Pearson, Inc.

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