Friday, May 05, 2006


In an article published several years ago, I argued that cyberspace will change the existing structure of criminal groups. (Organized Cybercrime: How Cyberspace May Affect the Structure of Criminal Relationships, 4 North Carolina Journal of Law & Technology 1 (2002)).

We have had criminal groupings for millennia, but as I explain in the article, the last century saw the emergence of a specialized type of criminal organization: the hierarchically organized gang.

The hierarchically organized criminal gang was developed in the United States in the first several decades of the twentieth century. It was the product of several interacting forces, one of which was the Mafia. As everyone knows from The Godfather, the Mafia is a criminal group that evolved in Sicily in the nineteenth century; Sicilian immigrants brought the Mafia to the United States, and it became particularly influential in New York. Another interacting force was the Volstead Act, which outlawed the production and sale of alcohol in the United States. As many have noted, the Volstead Act actually made alcohol much more popular than it had been before; this, in turn, created new opportunities for those who were willing to defy the law and supply the public with the liquor it demanded. The Mafia quickly took advantage of these opportunities, especially in cities like New York and Chicago; Mafiosi like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano (and independents like Roy Olmstead in Seattle) became leaders of large-scale bootlegging operations that manufactured (or imported) liquor and distributed it to speakeasies and other illegal outlets.

The large-scale bootlegging these operations carried out resembled the activities of legitimate business more than it did that of the criminal activities the Mafia and other criminal groups had traditionally carried out. As I explain in the article cited above, criminal groupings -- gangs -- had historically focused on rather basic criminal activity: robbery, murder for hire, extortion, etc. Aggregating several/many criminal together into a single group could increase the efficacy with which these crimes were committed by bringing more manpower to bear and, perhaps, allowing for a rudimentary division of labor among robbers, extortionists and the like. But these crimes, and the groups that carried them out, were very much focused on crimes of the moment -- single criminal episodes that were carried out, after which the perpetrators moved on to other similar or dissimilar episodes. There was, as I explain in the article, a basic division of labor between leader and his followers; in larger groupings, there could be a division of labor between a leader, one or more subordinate leaders and their followers, but the organizational structure remained rudimentary, since that sufficed.

As I explain in the article, alcohol prohibition caused an empirical shift in certain criminal groups, most notably the Mafia. Large-scale bootlegging required a much more sophisticated division of labor, essentially a corporate division of labor. As military and government groups have known for a long time, hierarchical organizational structures are an effective way to mobilize personnel for the accomplishment of tasks in the real, physical world. A hierarchical structure therefore evolved in groups that were involved in bootlegging; as some have noted, the structure of these groups eventually came to resemble the organizational model found in modern corporations. Because this hierarchical structure proved advantageous for the American Mafia, it persisted and spread to other emerging groups, such as the Yakuza and drug cartels.

Hierarchical, pseudo-corporate organizational patterns have consequently become a defining characteristic of modern "organized" crime. And I am sure these patterns will persist for criminal groups that continue to engage in illicit activities in the real-world. I do not, however, think they will be characteristics of criminal groupings that engage in illicit activities in the virtual world of cyberspace as we know it or as it will presumably evolve over the next centuries. As I explain in the article cited above, hierarchical organizational structures are not adaptive for activities that are carried out online. Hierarchical structures are essential for concentrating human and other resources to overcome the constraints of the real-world to pursue activities such as constructing buildings, manufacturing goods (legal and illegal) and waging war; hierarchical structures are not particularly useful when the physical constraints of the real-world become irrelevant.

In the article I cited at the beginning of this post, I explain in more detail why that is true and I speculate as to how criminal organizations will adapt to this new environment. I postulate that we will see new, lateral modes of criminal organization evolve to conduct crime online. One thing that I think will differentiate these new modes of criminal organization from the hierarchical model of "organized" crime that emerged in the last century is the continuity of personnel: As we all probably know from The Godfather and The Sopranos, continuity of personnel is an essential characteristic of Mafia-style criminal organizations; aside from being the product of familial ties, continuity ensures stability and helps maintain loyalty to the organization and prevent its being infiltrated by law enforcement. I do not think continuity will be an aspect of online criminal organization because I do not think it will focus on the kind of territorially-based criminal activity that is an essential characteristic of real-world organized crime.

I think online criminal organization will be much more situational. Criminal groupings will come into existence for the purpose of carrying out particular criminal activity and disband once the activity is complete. I think online criminal organization will be lateral rather than hierarchical in nature; it will represent a collaboration among equals instead of being based on a hierarchical chain of command.

If I am right about these and other aspects of online criminal organization I outline in the article cited above, then law enforcement's task will become much more difficult. The hierarachical organizational structure common to Mafia-style criminal organizations may make it difficult for law enforcement officers to infiltrate those organizations, but it also makes the organizations and their membership easy targets for law enforcement. Aside from John Gotti--like flamboyance, the permanence of the organizations and the stability of their membership makes it relatively easy for law enforcement officers to track their activities in the real-world. This, in turn, makes them more vulnerable, which no doubt accounts for what seems to be a decline in the influence of the Mafia and similar groups.

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