National e-crime unit takes shape

The government's accession to public calls for a national e-crime...

The government's accession to public calls for a national e-crime unit has been widely welcomed, but its lack of a budget and a clear reporting structure could mean it will be some time before the current gap in cyberpolicing is filled.

Home Office minister Vernon Coaker told the House of Lords select committee on science and technology last month that the government takes e-crime seriously, in the first public indication of government support for the new unit.

The new e-crime unit is widely expected to form part of the emerging National Fraud Reporting Centre (NFRC), which will be run by the national Fraud Strategic Authority.

The City of London Police, whose economic crime unit is likely to form the core of the NFRC, is to pilot a database to capture e-crime information, starting this summer. It will gather information from four groups representing the private and public sector.

However, the shape and nature of the proposed e-crime unit are still unclear. Some say that it should act purely as an intelligence gathering, assessment and reporting agency. Others believe the global and ill-defined nature or e-crime means it should have an operational capability to deter and investigate e-crime.

A meeting scheduled last week between Home Office minister Vernon Coaker and the Association of Chief Police Officers' (ACPO) lead on e-crime deputy assistant commissioner Janet Williams was expected to resolve some of these issues.

Proposals for national e-crime unit go back to the early days of the present Labour government. It set up the National High-Tech Crime Unit shortly after coming to power. It was well-received by the public and businesses, which reported suspected e-crimes to it.

The unit was highly selective in the cases it investigated, but it enjoyed a conviction rate of more than 70%. On this measure, it laid claim to be one of the most effective crime-fighting forces in the UK.

That is why news that the Serious and Organised Crime Agency would absorb the NHCTU surprised many observers. Although it was plain that fighting terrorism was important, businesses worried that the government would ignore commercial abuses, such as hacking, phishing and denial of service attacks.

At the time, the government said victims should report these to their local police forces, or their banks. Those who did had mixed results. Local forces were often ill-equiped to deal with the complaints.

Many experts pointed out that the e-crimes faced by businesses were often national and international in scope. They were also the work of relatively few people. The failure of the police to collect data on incidents made it harder to discern patterns and react appropriately, they said.

Commander Sue Wilkinson, e-criome lead for the Association of Cheif Police Officers prepared a two-part business plan for a national e-crime unit in Summer 2007 to address these criticisms.

The first task would be to record and assess all reported e-crimes from whatever source, including the public. It would pass the resulting intelligence to whichever of the UK's 43 police forces was best-equipped to investigate it. This would cost £1.3m. A more ambitious version, at £4.5m, added investigatory capabilities to the unit and set it up as a national centre of excellence on e-crime.

Shortly after the business plan emerged the project hit delays as a succession of people took over responsibility for the project. Wilkinson took a job in Australia. Meanwhile, Wilkinson's deputy, the Met's detective chief inspector Charlie McMurdie took over until ACPO appointed Janet Williams as lead on e-crime.

Opposition politicians have supported ACPO's lobbying for a separate national e-crime unit. A house of Lords committee called on the government to make the funds to set up the unit available "without delay". The government's initial response was to ignore the calls.

That was a year ago. Since then, Soca has reported that more and more criminals are using the internet to commit crimes ranging from identity theft to fraud. Very often the fruits of these activities fund more serious crimes such as people smuggling, drug and arms trafficking, and terrorism. Nothing has been decided on the future of the proposed unit, but the government appears to be softening its stance.

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