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Government should build on PCeU success

Ian Grant

Pressure from businesses to set up a national e-crime unit to police hackers and virus writers was vindicated last week when the newly formed Police Central e-crime unit, arrested nine people following an investigation into criminal gang using Trojans to defraud bank customers.

The next question is whether politicians and the executive have the will to step up the battle against e-crime in Britain.

Businesses, backed by Computer Weekly, have been campaigning for a national force to fight computer crime for over two years. The UK lost that capability in 2006 when the then National High-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) was largely subsumed by the Serious Organised Crime Unit (Soca), and its talent diverted from computer crime to investigating terrorism and gang crime.

Since then, individuals and businesses have been at a loss as to where to report actual and suspected e-crimes. And no-one has collected easily verifiable statistics about the nature and extent of e-crime in the UK. The National Audit Office has complained that the lack of hard data is hampering its investigation, due to report in late 2009, of the effectiveness of government policies and initiatives in fighting e-crime.

The new unit has its orgins, when, following the NHTCU's disappearance, the Association of Police Constables (Acpo) set up an e-crime unit based in the Metropolitan Police Force. Its aim was to set up a national police centre of excellence in fighting e-crime. It won initial funding of £1.3m from Acpo, but was soon running on a shoestring, thanks to political turf battles.

However, intense lobbying by businesses, banks, politicians and voters, supported by Computer Weekly and backed by evidence of a growing e-crime wave, eventually persuaded Home Office minister Vernon Coker to open the purse strings. In September 2008 Coker announced that just over £7m, £3.5m from the Home Office and £3.9m from Acpo, would go to support a Police Central e-Crime Unit (PCeU). While welcome, this is less than one-third of the £25m budget of the old NHTCU.

To charge two men with conspiracy to defraud, possession of articles for use in fraud, and money laundering, and to bail seven others, just six months after being given the go-ahead, is immensely satisfying to those who have lived through the establishment process.

A spokesman for Apacs, the banks' clearing houses, said he was "delighted with the arrests". Apacs itself already spends £5m directly to support the Dedicated Cheque and Plastic Crime Unit (DCPCU), a police unit that specialises in payment media crimes.

Detective chief inspector Charlie McMurdie, who heads the PCeU's investigative arm, said the investigation showed just how quickly police can respond to computer crime. The investigation took weeks rather than months to conclude. She suggested that, if left alone, the gang could have got away with seven figure sums within six months.

If that is true, the arrests represent excellent value for money, with more to come. Not only did the unit co-ordinate the investigation with other police and industry bodies, but the lessons learned will be codified and shared with other police forces to speed up their own capabilities.

Despite this return, the Home Office remains under tight budget pressure. Not a penny more, says a spokesman. McMurdie says the unit will "naturally" try to boost its budget by applying for funds from confiscations under proceeds of crime actions.

But the best source of more funds is likely to be increased publicity for good results. With an election looming in 18 months, the government will need success stories. The PCeU could, and should, be one.


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