Following the closure of the National High-Tech Crime Unit, policing e-crime is set to become part and parcel of everyday police work, with the focus on prevention.
Work is now well under way on a national computer crime strategy that many hope will address the gap left by the closure of the National High-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) which was absorbed last year into the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca).
The closure of the NHTCU, which was the UK's only national police unit devoted to fighting hackers and virus writers, provoked a wave of concern from businesses when it was announced last year.
The unit was responsible for funding high-tech crime specialists in each of the UK's 43 police forces. Now chief constables have to weigh up whether they can continue to justify paying for the specialists at a time when there are cries to put more bobbies on the beat. Privately, even senior policemen have described the end of the unit as "very sad".
Commander Sue Wilkinson, who has responsibility for e-crime at the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), is at the helm of the new strategy. She is working closely with Soca to drive the plan forward.
Wilkinson's role is partly practical, partly political, as she seeks to build a consensus with local police forces and the Home Office at a time when e-crime appears to have slipped down the political agenda.
In her first interview as Acpo lead on e-crime, Wilkinson gave an insight into her thinking. Speaking from her office in New Scotland Yard's Specialist Crime Directorate, she outlined the essence of the plan: to make e-crime part and parcel of everyday policing.
At its heart is a recognition that e-crime can no longer be treated as a specialist area, but needs to become part of everyday police work. The strategy recognises that computers, mobile phones and PDAs increasingly play a role in crimes that have very little to do with hacking or the internet.
"We can no longer separate it out as we have in the past. It is a mainstream part of all our lives. It has to be mainstream. It has to be treated like any other crime. It has to be recorded and reported in the same way, and treated as we treat any other allegation," Wilkinson says.
This means ensuring that the 43 police forces in England and Wales have specified minimum levels of expertise in e-crime. Wilkinson is working with the police forces to raise awareness of e-crime and to ensure that each force is capable of responding to incidents when they are reported.
"One of my key roles is to bring all forces up to a level of resilience. By talking to chief constables, that is what I would like to ensure. It is very important that every force should be able to respond to something like this," she says.
"Generally, we need specialists all over the country who understand how the internet can be used in the commission and facilitation of crime, and also have a good understanding of how you can disrupt that."
Acpo is talking with HM Inspectorate of Constabulary to look at ways computer crime capability could form part of the inspectorate's assessment of police force performance.
At the same time, Wilkinson is also anxious that forces make better use of the computer crime expertise that already exists throughout the country. Acpo has begun a mapping exercise that will identify which forces have which expertise in which areas of e-crime. It will also, Wilkinson hopes, identify any gaps that need to be filled.
"Every force needs to have people in it who understand e-crime. The important thing is we get the coordination right. So every force needs to be able to take reports of, and coordinate the response to, e-crime. One of the most important things is that every force is aware of where it can go to get specialist support in any particular area of e-crime," she says.
"I would not demand that every force had a particular model of computer crime unit."
As well as helping each other, forces will be encouraged to draw on private sector specialists for expertise in e-crime investigations. This approach is being pioneered by the Metropolitan Police's Computer Crime Unit, which has created a database of special constables with IT expertise, who can be drafted in to help with major investigations.
The Met was able to call on their services to help in a recent investigation into a serious virus attack. When officers obtained a compromised server containing details of more than 8,500 bank accounts in the UK and overseas, the specialists were called in to identify and alert thousands of potential victims.
"There is loads of potential for all forces to take on this kind of approach," says Wilkinson.
The cornerstone of the new strategy, however, will be crime prevention rather than investigation. After all, says Wilkinson, the volume of computer crime is so large that only a fraction of cases can ever be investigated.
"One of my big beefs is that everyone expects so much of the police on this, but actually we all have a role to play. The big institutions have a role to play, the great big technology companies, the banks, the ISPs," she says.
"Proactive prevention is a really viable way forward. If you understand what the emerging problem is, you then work with the bank or the industry or public awareness to tell them about what the problem is and how to prevent it happening to them."
Organisations that have fallen victim to e-crime will be encouraged to report the incident through the internet. Although this will not necessarily lead to a police investigation, it will provide valuable data on e-crime trends that are used to develop prevention strategies and awareness campaigns.
"We will then work with ISPs or businesses - whatever is most appropriate to prevent that particular mode of e-crime happening. And that is by far the most effective policing response to a very unquantifiable issue like e-crime," she says.
Wilkinson acknowledges that work will need to be done to make it easier for businesses to find websites that will offer them the right crime prevention advice. There are a bewildering number, including Getsafeonline, IT Safe, Soca, and various child protection websites.
The experience of the Metropolitan Police Computer Crime Unit shows that many of the crimes reported could easily be prevented if businesses took the right advice.
Detective inspector Charlie McMurdie of the Met's Specialist Crime Directorate is responsible for the unit's day-to-day running.
"An awful lot of businesses come to us where it transpires that sensible housekeeping rules have not been put into place. Numerous people have access to systems. These may be disgruntled employees who are dismissed, but whose passwords are not deleted. Or systems administrators who have access to everybody's data and details," she says.
Special constables drafted in from industry could play a key role in advising firms on e-crime prevention, McMurdie says. A study is currently under way looking at how the scheme could work.
"You do not need to be a police officer to go out and deliver training or crime prevention advice. So there would be a role for volunteers to come in and work alongside the computer crime unit in the Met," she says.
Wilkinson is anxious to play down concerns that the creation of Soca, which has absorbed the NHTCU has left a gap in policing computer crime.
"The gap has taken on a mythological status. I actually think that just by communicating among the 43 forces better, publicising the capability assessment and everybody understanding where they can go to get support, we can enhance policing response without any kind of gap," she says.
Even so, she favours the creation of a policing body modelled on the NHTCU to coordinate e-crime policing across the local police forces.
"What I have been doing all year is scoping the possibility of some sort of national coordinating unit for UK police forces. Soca is a new agency, not a police force. So we probably need to set something similar to what the NHTCU did," she says.
"I think the NHTCU had a valuable role. It was pretty high profile. Everyone knew about it. It coordinated responses. It acted as a single point of contact for industry and all law enforcement. It had a lot to do with the development of policy and practice," she says.
Whether the new unit will win funding from the Home Office is a moot point. And even if it does not, Wilkinson is confident she can make a difference.
"The police are not the answer to all of this. We can play our part working in partnership with everybody else. But it is actually for all of us to take responsibility for the potential for e-crime to be committed," she says.
"But clearly we will prioritise our policing activity. We need to have everyone in policing thinking this is part of their responsibility. That is how we get the extra resources. There is no point piling specialist resources into every force."
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This was first published in January 2007