German firm grabs National Hi-Tech Crime Unit's web identity

The government's National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) has had its web identity snapped up by a private German web firm.

The government's National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) has had its web identity snapped up by a private German web firm. The government has closed the high-profile unit, but the sale has created security concerns.

Websites are still linking to the NHTCU even though the domain name has been sold and has nothing to do with the UK government.

IT security and control firm Sophos is calling on UK authorities to take more control of both their current and old websites following the discovery that is in private foreign hands.

The NHTCU came to an abrupt end in April 2006, when its work was transferred to the Serious Organised Crime Unit (Soca).

Yet, websites around the world still link to and point readers to the NHTCU site. As recently as this weekend, the BBC linked to the website from a story about Nasa hacker Gary McKinnon.

Sophos experts have discovered that the site is no longer owned by the UK government, but by an enterprising German internet marketer who bought the domain on 2 August 2008.

"While there is no sign of malicious content or adware on the site at the moment, there is no guarantee that this situation is going to remain the same forever," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos.

"If you can 'steal' the identity of the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit from under the government's nose, what message does that give the world about the state of the nation's computer security? Letting the domain name go like this demonstrates a sloppiness on the part of the authorities."

Sophos said that although the current owner, Uwe Matt, has done nothing illegal in buying the site, the authorities should never have allowed the purchase to happen.

According to Sophos, it is likely that Uwe Matt bought the site to get higher rankings on search engines, but that there is nothing to stop him selling the website domain on to someone else who may use the site to host malicious code or spam-related content.

With reputable organisations still linking to the site, the danger is that innocent computer users could accidentally find themselves the victim of a cyber attack.

"In the worst possible scenario, fraudsters could in future use the site to pretend to be the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit and try to harvest confidential information from computer crime victims," said Cluley.

"This situation may never arise, but the message is clear: all organisations must take proper care of their website domains, especially if they are widely linked to from other sites."

Sophos has published a video exploring the rise and fall of the NHTCU website.

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