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Police investigations into cyber crime up 14% in a year

Officers forced to follow up over 2,500 complaints of Instagram, Facebook, email and website hacking, and Bitcoin ransom, despite a rise in violent crime, report reveals

UK police forces are under increasing pressure to launch criminal investigations into incidents of social media and computer hacking, according to a new report from the Parliament Street think tank.

The news comes as senior Police Chiefs have warned budget cuts and limited resources are leading to an increase in violent crime across the country.

The Hack Attack: Police under pressure research paper reveals 14 police forces have launched a total of 2,547 investigations into reports of computer and social media hacking over the last two financial years, according to data obtained under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

The data shows a rise of 14%, from 1,181 incidents in 2016/17 to 1,354 in 2017/18. The Parliament Street think tank also released the relevant Police notes on the incidents in question, providing further context.

“Cyber crime in particular is not a new threat to the 21st century but is certainly something that is becoming a bigger issue for police forces across the country,” the report said.

In the most recent financial year, Cleveland Police reported the most incidents of hacking, with a total of 356 reports recorded. This was followed by Nottinghamshire Police which reported 246 cases of hacking.

The largest increases of incidents between the two financial years were the West Midlands police force, up 19% to 329 crimes reported in 2017/18 and Nottinghamshire, up 21% to 246 in 2017/18.

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Sheila Flavell, chair of the Institute of Coding and COO of FDM Group, said the “tidal wave” of cyber crime is draining the resources of police forces as well as businesses.

“Tackling this problem requires a concerted effort to recruit staff equipped with the latest cyber skills, as well as extending education and training opportunities to existing employees. As part of this effort, it’s vital that industry works more closely with academic institutions to develop specialist flexible courses so that skills within workforces increase dramatically.”   

In addition to the data, Parliament Street obtained copies of police notes for several forces, describing the nature of the incidents under investigation.

Some key findings include:

  • Derbyshire Police logged an incident in 2017 where a hacker managed to access a victim’s Facebook account, stealing photos and distributing them.
  • Merseyside Police reported that underage children have been sharing indecent images – some have been hacked and shared without permission.
  • Leicestershire Police force reported that an unknown person hacked into a personal email account and posted photographs of emails through his girlfriend’s postbox.
  • Norfolk and Suffolk police force specifically referenced a crime whereby a virus was deployed into a businesses’ server which had encrypted personal data files. The virus would then demand a ransom of 1,087 bitcoins to remove it.

At the International Security Expo 2018 in London, he cyber lead at the City of London Police described cyber crime as the “most significant harm” in the UK facing police.

Cyber crime is also the biggest evolving crime type in the UK and beyond in terms of volume and complexity, said detective chief superintendent Pete O’Doherty, lead of cyber and head of economic crime at the City of London Police.

The challenges of policing cyber crime

O’Doherty said policing cyber crime is challenging because of its multinational nature, limited capability of police officers, lack of public understanding of the threat and the use of cryptocurrencies by criminals making it harder to link them to crimes. 

For all these reasons, he said police are switching to an intelligence-led approach to fight cyber crime, seeking to disrupt cyber criminal infrastructure and increase organisations’ understanding of how to protect themselves. 

Police forces are also putting in place mechanisms to draft in volunteers with specialist skills as well as expanding cyber training courses for officers and international intelligence-sharing partnerships.

Cyber crime still “significantly under-reported”

Although the Parliament Street report found that individuals are beginning to report crimes of hacking to their local police force, O’Doherty said cyber crime is still “significantly under-reported”, which is a big problem.

“We want every victim of crime, which includes businesses, to report those crimes, because if we know what the true scale of the problem is, we can start to develop an intelligence-led, coordinated response,” he said. 

The Parliament Street report recommends:

  1. Mandatory national cyber training for officers and staff
  2. More industry support for police forces
  3. Recruitment of technology-qualified officers

“It is clear that social media sites and technology giants could and should do more to support police in tracking down perpetrators of hacking crimes. 

“This should include offering more collaboration on initiatives, offering training for officers on how to navigate technology to identify evidence and capture the culprits.

“It’s time for police forces to dramatically increase the recruitment of highly qualified officers. As well as working closely with universities and training colleges, industry organisations should also offer placement years and consultancy to ensure police forces are fully equipped to deal with this threat,” the report said.

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