Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us



Do Television Shows Like ‘CSI’ Deter Cybercrime?

• July 26, 2013 • 6:00 AM


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, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?

October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.

October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.

October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.

October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.

October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.

October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.

October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.

October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.

October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.

October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.

October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.

October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.

October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.

October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?

October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.

October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.

October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.

October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.

Follow us

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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