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Cybercriminals are getting away with virtual murder because criminal laws in most countries have not been extended into cyberspace.

That's the conclusion of a study by McConnell International, a technology management consulting firm. It says that the lack of criminal laws is making the prosecution of computer related crimes - such as hacking or spreading viruses on the Internet - nigh on impossible.

The study, "Cyber Crime ... and Punishment?", found that only nine of the 52 countries surveyed had amended their laws to cover computer related crime.

"The long arm of the law does not yet reach across the global Internet," said Bruce W. McConnell, the firm's president. "Organisations must rely on their own defences for now. Governments, industry, and civil society must work together to develop consistent and enforceable national laws to deter future crime in cyberspace."

The report looked at ten different types of cyber crime in four categories: data-related crimes, including interception, modification, and theft; network-related crimes, including interference and sabotage; crimes of access, including hacking and virus distribution; and associated computer-related crimes, including aiding and abetting cyber criminals, computer fraud, and computer forgery.

Nine countries were found to have updated their laws to deal with six or more of these ten categories of offences, which was judged to be enough to provide some blanket of cover. A further 10 had some legislation against computer crime but an alarming 33 states had no laws against crime on the internet.

Neil Barrett, technical director at Information Risk Management, said the study was factually correct but represented an "unnecessarily bleak" picture.

He said in many cases computer crimes could be prosecuted under existing laws against fraud, criminal damage, theft or conspiracy - though the application of these laws sometimes falls down, resulting in weak penalties.

To at least partly address this, Barrett, who has been a key advisor to the police force in the UK on computer security, is working with a group to develop a trans-national code of best practice for dealing with cyber-crime. He added this would enable the better international co-operation, as well as sharing of information and of best practices in tackling crime on the internet. ®

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McConnell International

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