Any suggestion that the UK is to have its equivalent of the FBI may be an exaggeration, but SOCA, the new Serious & Organised Crime Agency, will still have to prove that it can redefine policing in the 21st century.
This particularly applies to areas that touch the internet as a channel for serious and organised crime, presently the remit of the NHTCU, The National Hi-tech Crime Unit which, last week, received a visit from Mr Blair, Mr Blunkett and, of course, Sadie the Labrador.
Having recently met with the chief security officer of one of the country’s largest financial institutions, I’m told that the constant battle against e-crime, scams, phishing, fraud, extortion and money laundering are an expensive headache and present a growing and serious challenge to any fond ambition of becoming the showcase information economy described by chancellor Gordon Brown in his business leaders summit last month.
One obstacle is that some politicians and most labradors lack the appropriate frame of reference to grasp the nature and size of the problem confronting society. Serious and organised crime can, at least, be written into the script of EastEnders, but the phishing threat isn’t so easy to understand or explain to the audience and neither is the evolving shape of an economy increasingly reliant on ICT and TCP/IP and which lies under the constant threat of compromise.
Britain still remains at heart “a nation of shopkeepers” and Parliamentary group Eurim, in publishing its e-crime defence recommendations for small business, points to the fact that there are 2.6 million sole traders and 1.2 million businesses with less than 50 employees in the UK.
“This accounts for 99% of the country’s businesses, employing over 40% of the entire UK population," said Eurim. "Many of these companies provide services within the supply chains of larger organisations, linked together by an increasingly interconnected online world."
Eurim secretary general Philip Virgo added, “The lack of effective secure computing within these SMEs presents a risk not only to the firms themselves, but also the larger organisations they serve and, consequently, the entire UK economy."
Frustrating the rise of serious and organised crime on the internet may require more than the arrival of a British FBI, although it’s a step in the right direction. It needs a sensible budget and a revolutionary kind of working partnership between business and the police built on mutual confidence and information sharing, in conjunction with evidence that the vital connection between a trustworthy internet and the new economy, is grasped by more than one minister and isn’t lost by others among the sound bites and photo opportunities.
The Conservative opposition may have a valid point when shadow Home Office police spokesman James Paice says of SOCA, "We broadly welcome the government's plans but have reservations about how they will be carried out in practice."
Paice points to a problem that already worries police officers in a country where the separate constabularies are operated as virtual fiefdoms under their chief constables. He remarks that the government must address many aspects. These include the boundaries between forces; the regional structure of this new unit; the rivalries between departments, the sharing of intelligence and information, and the cost implications.
There is little doubt that e-crime is a poor relation when it comes to overall allocation of the policing resource. You and I are far more worried by the threat of real crime and the threat from the world outside the front door as opposed to the risk from the world behind the firewall. The problem, however, is that both are becoming increasingly connected - at least at the serious and organised crime level -and this, in turn, is threatening to undermine confidence in the internet as a viable commercial medium and e-government channel.
Is there a solution? The BBC identifies the provision of a traditional police service in a digital age as one of the biggest challenges facing forces across the country. It still seems to me that even with the announcement of SOCA, government lacks real answers to the twin problems of rising crime on the internet and crime on the streets.
Politicians have a habit of looking uncomfortable around keyboards and mice but continue to promote the vision of Britain as the best possible place to do e-business. You and I know this can’t happen unless government starts understanding that business confidence in cyberspace is starting to rival national confidence in the railways. As a result the future, presently undergoing maintenance work, courtesy of Microsoft and others, may find itself subject to delay.
What do you think?
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Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of leading industry analyst Dr Simon Moores of Zentelligence.
Acting globally, Zentelligence (Research) advises governments, suppliers, business and the media on the evolution, application and delivery of leading-edge technologies and specialises in the areas of eGovernment and information security.
For further information on Zentelligence and its research, presentation and analyst services visit www.zentelligence.com
This was first published in February 2004