Menus Subscribe Search
CSI-LV

CSI. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF CBS)

Do Television Shows Like ‘CSI’ Deter Cybercrime?

• July 26, 2013 • 6:00 AM

CSI. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF CBS)

The curious case of the “inverse CSI effect.”

Legal experts and behavioral scientists have gone back and forth over the years about the so-called “CSI effect,” about whether jurors have been led by fictional TV programs to have unreasonable expectations of the forensic evidence used in actual, real-life crime investigations.

The theory goes, in a crime drama like CSI, handsome nerds in lab coats produce unequivocal results in the time between one commercial break and the next. Real forensic scientists work slowly, and often present their findings as theories rather than as facts. Likewise, the most technologically advanced forensic labs can suffer from contamination or human error; even fingerprint-identification is more of an art than a science.

Cybercrimes will probably continue to occur, and law enforcement agencies will continue to crack them, at steadily increasingly sophisticated levels.

Just last week, The Washington Post reported on “an unprecedented federal review of old criminal cases,” including 27 death penalty convictions, in which FBI forensic experts may have “exaggerated” their testimony about the scientific evidence they had analyzed for those cases. The review has revealed the widespread and long-standing limitations in one type of forensic analysis—hair comparison—a revelation that has huge repercussions for thousands of federal and state cases.

Clearly, forensic science has its gray areas. Yet it’s hard for some jurors to get past the glamorized version of the process, and so they expect black-and-white certainty: hence, the oft-cited “CSI effect.” But other legal researchers have dismissed this notion as mere anecdotal pop science. So the jury’s still out on that one, so to speak.

But aside from whatever impact these types of shows may have on juries and the general public, what about their effect on real-life crime? Criminals watch TV, too, right?

A new study being released in the International Journal of Electronic Security and Digital Forensics suggests that TV crime dramas might have a measurable effect on cybercrimes in particular. The study’s author, informatician Richard Overill of King’s College London, came to this conclusion after analyzing patterns in cybercrime data in the U.S. over the past 11 years. (The first CSI series premiered in 2000, and Miami and New York spin-offs followed.)

According to Overill, there are several ways in which potential criminals might adjust their modus operandi to evade the kinds of “unambiguous” and “instantaneous” forensic sleuthing they see on television. He writes:

They are likely to withdraw from cyber-criminal activity that now appears too risky in the light of the perceived ease of discovery. They may migrate to alternative modalities involving many layers of concealment, stealth and obfuscation. The up-front investment required to implement these advanced methodologies will necessitate a proportionate increase in the expected returns, in order to maintain a stable cost-benefit ratio. Thus we would anticipate a compensating increase in the average value of cyber-crime heists, accompanied by a migration to sophisticated strategies of concealment.

Translation: a lot of would-be criminals are probably scared away from these types of crimes by what they imagine to be easy detection by law enforcement. So, there may be less cybercrime overall than there would have been, had crime dramas been less infatuated with cyber exploits as their go-to plot points. But it also means that the criminals that are willing to go ahead with cybercrime will be smarter, more well-funded, and generally better equipped to evade detection.

For example: the group of Russian and Ukranian hackers who perpetrated the largest hacking and data breach in the country, who, federal prosecutors announced on Thursday, attacked NASDAQ and several online retailers and ultimately did hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage? Those guys are definitely pros. On the other hand, they did get caught, although it took eight years for that to happen.

As I mentioned in my last post about a new crop of digital filters being developed to combat child pornography, it’s all an arms race. Cybercrimes will probably continue to occur, and law enforcement agencies will continue to crack them, at steadily increasingly sophisticated levels. Whether TV shows dissuade some dummies from trying their hand at that dangerous game probably won’t make much of a difference.

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

More From Lauren Kirchner

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 22 • 12:00 PM

Freaking Out About Outliers: When the Polls Are Way Off

The idea of such a small number of people being used to predict how millions will vote sometimes irks observers, but it’s actually a very reliable process—most of the time.


September 22 • 10:00 AM

The Imagined Sex Worker

The stigma against black sex workers can reinforce stigmas against all black women and all sex workers.


September 22 • 9:54 AM

All-Girls Schools Don’t Make Girls More Competitive

Parents, not educational setting, may be the key.


September 22 • 8:00 AM

The NFL, the Military, and the Problem With Masculine Institutions

Both the NFL and the U.S. military cultivate and reward a form of hyper-violent masculinity. The consequences of doing so have never been more obvious.


September 22 • 6:00 AM

Zombies in the Quad: The Trouble With Elite Education

William Deresiewicz’s new book, Excellent Sheep, is in part, he says, a letter to his younger, more privileged self.


September 22 • 4:02 AM

You’re Going to Die! So Buy Now!

New research finds inserting reminders of our mortality into advertisements is a surprisingly effective strategy to sell products.



September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?


Follow us


All-Girls Schools Don’t Make Girls More Competitive

Parents, not educational setting, may be the key.

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

The Big One

One in three tourists to Jamaica reports getting harassed; half of them are hassled to buy drugs. September/October 2014 new-big-one-4

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.