The last two weeks have witnessed dramatic victories against two very different lawbreaking networks. First the death of Bin Laden removed the leader of al Qaeda. Second, the conviction of Raj Rajaratnam represented a major victory for prosecutors against the so-called expert insider trading networks. Although the two lawbreaking networks have a multitude of differences – in terms of social harm, motivations, and structure – they also have important similarities.
For one thing, both terror networks and insider trading networks present an opportunity to study social networks in a rigorous manner. “Networks” are more than just loose metaphor, but instead the subject of the emerging field of network theory that borrows from and links computer science, sociology, economics and a host of other fields. “Emerging” does not mean new: some of the germinal research stretches back over four decades. For example Granovetter’s work on “weak ties” in sociology. Mark Lemley and David McGowan authored a wonderful piece on network effects and law over 10 years ago and the legal literature continues to blossom (from Aviram to Zaring). Network theory has arrived.
And it is being put to use. A number of years ago, media reports suggested that the U.S. intelligence agencies were seeking to use network theory to crack Al Qaeda (see here for a law review article by Christopher Borgen on network theory and terrorism). The extent to which financial regulators and prosecutors have done the same with respect to insider trading is not clear, although scholars have recently suggested new potential approaches.
We may not know for a long time the extent to which network theory is influencing law enforcement. You can understand that intelligence and law enforcement would be unwilling to disclose the methods they use to catch bad guys. But the secrecy means that their methods do not enjoy the benefits – one could even say network effects – of being subject to the scrutiny of a larger community. Observers could help answer vital questions, such as “how effective are these efforts against lawbreakers?” and “could they be improved?” According to Linus’s Law: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Aside from questions about efficacy, there are lingering and legitimate concerns about the implications of national security surveillance over internet communications.
But even the information we have learned about the two recent victories against anti-social networks leads to some interesting, if tentative observations. First, the ultimate value of these government operations is not in traditional deterrence alone, but in disrupting networks. In other words, successful operations against networks rely not only on crude deterrence of criminal behavior by scaring off would-be criminals. After all, it isn’t clear that a jihadist will be sobered by Bin Laden’s fate. By contrast, one thing that does disrupt networks is interfering with their capacity to send signals. Driving bad guys off the net seriously interferes with their ability to conduct business. From news reports, it doesn’t look like Bin Laden was all that successful in managing operations without an internet connection or a phone line. (Some reports suggest that the one time he did use a phone contributed to his location by U.S. intelligence.) Of course, government surveillance is thwarted not only by encryption, but by the daunting task of finding a needle in a haystack of data. Old-fashioned informants will still prove a critical tool.
Indeed media reports suggest that the government is heavily relying on informants in cracking the expert insider trading networks. From the perspective of law enforcement, this is important not only because it may lead to prosecutions, but also because it might disrupt the thing that these networks most rely on: trust.
So network theory suggests that we pay more attention to the marginalia of the Rajaratnam story. It is not the conviction alone that matters. It also argues for looking at other policy tools – such as a use of bounties in corporate crime – in another dimension, namely engendering distrust and thwarting the development of illegal networks. Of course, bounties for corporate crime and promoting snitching can create their own perverse incentives and pernicious effects. (Eleanor Brown penned an interesting essay on snitching, immigration, and terrorism that uses network theory.)
Another problem with a broader use of these tools is that they don’t always yield headline grabbing successes. No one sees the insider trading or terror attacks or law breaking that didn’t happen. The political economy of deterrence rewards prosecutors for victories in the courtroom, not necessarily for crime prevented.
Still, the events of the last week should give new life to study of network theory. There is evidence that network theory has become white hot. Consider this graph (from Google’s nifty Ngram tool) that plots the rising use of “network effect” compared to “deterrence effect” in books from1970 to mid 2007.
One can now also see a lot of those neat network graphs (see below) in news reporting.
Of course, the popularization of theory also threatens to reduce the intellectual rigor. Let’s hope the network effects of this line of inquiry are positive.
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Eugene Volokh's posts this morning on whether anti-war speech harms the defense effort reminded me of a federal form that I filled out yesterday. I was writing a recommendation for a student who was applying to the JAG corps. The form that I was required to complete stated that my prompt completion of the form could "help the defense effort." I thought that this was interesting. The date on the form (last updated) was October 2005. If anyone knows whether that instruction has always been on the form, let me know. This would be a good instruction on tax forms. Prompt paying of taxes may help the defense effort even more, right?
The form brought to mind the war poster collection at Texas law school, which were mostly located in the cafeteria known as Keeton's Casino (now renamed George's Cafe -- sorry Dean Keeton). The posters reminded us that all kinds of things harmed the war effort, but mostly waste. The posters never mentioned the prompt completion of forms.