Does Cybercrime Differ from Physical Crime?

Today’s post is a bit different than my previous posts. The idea is to engender discussions within teams or other groups. Below I present a scenario and some questions about it. The scenario focuses on the week 3 topic (Cybercrime) of National Cyber Security Awareness Month.

Imagine a small town or village: a place with a few dozen businesses lining a main street with residential areas on side streets. It’s early winter in the village, somewhat cold with night coming early.  Most businesses are closed by 6 PM so the families can have dinner. I imagine a place in northern Europe, but you can choose another location.

Into the village, one evening at dinnertime walks a small woman – petite enough to deftly crawl through a window and short enough to easily blend into her surroundings. The woman moves slowly down the town’s main street checking the doors and windows of each building she passes. Her diminutive size makes her almost invisible and her gloves protect her fingers as she grasps the freezing doorknobs and window sashes.


At the town’s small furniture store, the woman finds a window that easily opens enough to let her in. Instead of entering the store, she closes the window and continues down the street checking more shops.


  1. Are the woman’s actions legal? Should they be so?
    1. Do her actions at the furniture store change your view?
    2. Would your view be different if she had entered the furniture store and looked around before closing the window and continuing down the road?
  2. Are her actions “ethical” or “right”? Why or why not?
  3. Would it have made a difference if she had quickly tested the doorknobs and ignored the windows?

This is, of course, a metaphor for port scanning. Consider these revised questions:

  1. Is port scanning (of computers over which one has no authority) be legal? Should it be?
    1. If the scanner doesn’t try to access open ports, does that change your view?
    2. Would your view be different if the one doing the scanner connected to the open port and “looked around”?
  2. Is port scanning “ethical” or “right”? Why or why not?

In your opinion, is there a difference between crimes in cyberspace and the same crime committed in physical space? If someone steals from your bank account, does it matter whether or not the theft was committed in person or over the Internet?

Some References

From the site of a well-known port scanner.

A paper from SANS

An academic paper on cyber- vs physical crime

A UK perspective

If you undertake this discussion, we’d love to hear how it went: please post a comment below. We often have such informal discussions in  Learning Tree’s System and Network Security Introduction.

To your safe computing,
John McDermott

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