The rise of e-crime is no longer news. But could UK law-enforcement agencies have done more to prevent internet and IT-related crime reaching a value of £6bn per year, the latest figure reported by the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform?
The announcement last month of the formation of the new Police Central e-Crime Unit (PCeU) will be seen by some as an admission that the April 2006 decision to roll the former National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) into the more strategic Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) was a mistake.
The amalgamation was viewed by some as a distraction from the job at hand, just as computer-related crime was becoming more sophisticated and prevalent.
"We had a splendid, long relationship with the NHTCU, but that doesn't appear to be re-emerging in Soca," David Roberts, chief executive of industry body the Corporate IT Forum, told ZDNet.co.uk last year. "A lot of the difficulty with Soca is the period of silence [since its formation], which is such a stark contrast to the NHTCU, who were really visible and proactive."
Asked whether the creation of the PCeU is an acknowledgement that the government got it wrong when it absorbed the NHTCU into Soca, Janet Williams, Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner for the Specialist Crime Directorate, who is heading up the development of the new unit, said that, ultimately, it is not a question she can answer.
"That is a political question and I don't do those," she said. "I think police officers should just get on with it."
Demand for specialised unit
But some law-enforcement experts clearly see the need for a NHTCU-style organisation. Geoff Donson, former NHTCU team leader and now group security manager for hosting firm TelecityGroup, said the formation of the PCeU shows that people want a force operating more actively on their behalf.
"Industry really wants an NHTCU-type organisation to come back... [and] I think it would be true to say government is now behind it," he said. "What we are looking for are people who we can report crime to. Soca E-crime is more intelligence-led and looking at the bigger picture."
Williams admitted there is a desire among the general public for a unit to specifically target e-crime. When Dorset Police polled the local population about their concerns, e-crime came out top, according to Williams.
"There is a public concern born out of identity theft and online fraud. And there is industry calling for more police capacity. But the police themselves are also saying: 'We need to build up a response to this'," she said.
According to Donson, who has more than 27 years' experience as a police officer, with spells at Soca E-crime and the NHTCU, industry wants an organisation that can act on its behalf and investigate e-crime at all levels.
"Industry wants to be able to say: 'Look, we have had our servers attacked. Someone has misused our systems. We want someone to go out and knock on some doors and deal with it'," he said.
Many think the £7m earmarked for the PCeU is insufficient, given the many billions estimated to be lost to e-crime every year.
Williams said she feels the initial funding will help identify how big the problem is. "I think we will be able to prove we are punching way above our weight... and, from that, you can make a bigger business case for investment," she said.
Williams also confirmed she will be looking to industry for help, resources and some degree of financial backing for the new unit. "I am not so sure I am talking about huge amounts of hard cash," she said. Part of the long-term plan is to draft individuals from industry into the new unit on a temporary basis, she added.
"What I really need from industry is expertise, particularly in the development of forensics software. I am also very interested in secondments and industry releasing people for a few days a week to become special constabulary," said Williams.
Hiring for the PCeU is already under way, with the new recruits expected to start work in October and November. Williams confirmed that former members of NHTCU who moved over to Soca E-crime, when the NHTCU was absorbed by Soca, are no longer part of the police force.
She could not confirm whether Soca E-crime officers, who may have served in the NHTCU, will be asked to join the PCeU at a future date, but said, for now, she is only hiring from within the London force. "At the moment, to get this up and running, I am just recruiting from within the Metropolitan Police — at the moment, for the main hub," she said.
Expansion beyond London
The main hub of the PCeU will be based in London. The capital may be the UK's financial centre but e-crime affects the whole country. So, the business community outside London will be keen to know how the PCeU will work with law-enforcement agencies across the UK to create a force that can "knock on doors" in most major cities.
"Part of that Acpo [Association of Chief Police Officers] strategy is how to develop that capability. Each strand of the PCeU will be headed up by a chief constable from a different part of the country, with co-operation from HM Revenue & Customs and the Crown Prosecution Service," Williams said. "One of the objectives is to develop a regional capability for e-crime across the country."
The National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) is also being brought into the PCeU mix to help make e-crime detection and prevention more integral to the training of all police officers.
"The NPIA is working with us, so that, for example, everyone who joins the police service has some level of training on e-crime and that is developed throughout their career so that, when they get to be senior investigating officers, they have an in-depth understanding of how to tackle that kind of criminality," Williams said.
If industry and government support the PCeU, there is no reason why it cannot re-establish the reputation the NHTCU enjoyed for working closely with businesses and detecting and preventing e-crime.
But dissolving the NHTCU in the first place and having to spend time establishing a whole new force is still seen as a setback that business and government can ill afford. The organised gangs behind much of today's e-crime remain highly focused when it comes to pursuing their trade.