News Analysis

Policing green paper leaves cybercrime fighters in limbo

Ian Grant

The government's green paper on the future of policing has left the fight against cybercrime in limbo.

The government has already stopped a promised £1m as part of its wider austerity campaign. It is now unclear if the Police Central E-Crime Unit (PCEU), presently part of the Metropolitan Police Service, will end up as part of the proposed National Crime Agency.

The green paper said a large number of national policing units had emerged over time. "The overall picture is now confusing and cluttered. And the public accountability for the activities of some of these units is, at best, opaque," it said.

It said some of the national units were individual forces, and singled out the PCEU by name. "As Acpo [Association of Chief Police Officers] repositions itself it may be that responsibility for some of the functions presently being carried out by these national units could be brought under the ambit of the National Crime Agency," it said.

A spokesman for the Met confirmed that the PCEU will not receive the planned £1m uplift in funding from the Home Office next year.

The Home Office provided £500,000 in the PCEU's first year (2008/09). This rose to £1m in 2009/10, with a planned increase to £2m for 2010/11. In addition to this, the Met committed £3.9m over the first three years.

"Metropolitan Police Service funding will remain at £1.3m per year as originally committed and a further £800,000 has been realigned towards targeting the e-crime threat," the Met said.

It could not say what period this amount covered, but it did say it would be applied to training and staff costs.

"Without this additional funding the growth of our capability will be restricted, however we remain committed to our existing work in this area at current funding levels," the Met said.

Arrests

In the past year the unit got Nominet, the .uk domain registrar, to close down 1,200 websites that sold counterfeit World Cup and Premier League tickets and memorabilia, arrested two hackers in connection with the ZeuS Trojan, and arrested a gang involved in bank Trojans who were subsequently jailed for 13 years.

It also set up a Virtual Task Force that included the financial sectors, academics and internet service providers (ISPs) to tackle the "constantly evolving threat".

In its threat assessment for 2008/09, the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) warned of an emerging cybercrime ecosystem. "A picture is emerging of a sophisticated fraud 'infrastructure', made up of numerous specialists and niche service providers. For example, in the case of e-crime, hackers, coders, and information vendors (who sell compromised credit card information in bulk) carry out distinct roles," it said.

It warned that the London Olympics was a prime target for e-criminals.

New criminal activities

A year later Soca said organised criminals were turning to information and communications technology to support traditional and newer criminal activities, to enhance their communications and operational security and to gain access to criminal markets.

"The internet, in particular, has provided criminals with various money-making and other opportunities, and as commercial and business use of the internet has developed, its exploitation by organised criminals has also grown," it said.

Soca added criminals were more aware of the value of information, especially personal data, as a money making source. "This has led to a growing criminal market for large volumes of personal data taken from vulnerable computer systems, which is traded and exploited in a range of frauds, and for the tools and techniques required to commit these offences," it said.

The PCEU has 30 staff, 20 of these investigative. The Metropolitan Police Service has no plans at present to change this.

Peter Sommer, e-crime expert and professor at the London School of Economics, said, "When the National Crime Squad was closed down we lost the National High-Tech Crime Unit [NHTCU]. After some delays we gathered that part of the NHTCU would become Serious Organised Crime Agency, but that it would mainly aim to serve the needs of Soca.

"Like the rest of Soca, it wasn't part of mainstream policing and it lost both its police leadership role and its contacts with industry and the public. After a huge amount of lobbying and with miniscule funding, the Police Central E-Crime Unit emerged; it is only just finding its feet but has already had its budget cut."

Sommer deplored the effect the latest reorganisation would have on staff morale. ""What, if any, new structures will emerge? And what is this likely to do the individual officers, who presumably will now have to divert their attention to their own immediate careers and to producing yet more strategy papers?" he said.

The PCEU was launched in 2008 by the Home Office as a national resource for tackling electronic crime. The planned uplift in funding was to improve Acpo's national mainstream law enforcement capability, as well as providing essential training and crucial IT infrastructure within the PCEU.


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