Tracking e-crime

The railways could hold the key to dealing with growing threat of computer-based felonies

The home secretary, John Reid, has a lot on his mind at the moment. Not that overloading his brain would take much if The Sun is right, with its claims that the organ is akin to a walnut.

Missing criminals, overcrowded prisons and plans to split the Home Office mean Reid is unlikely to give much attention to a report late last week from the Metropolitan Police. It seems that the rising tide of electronic crime is lapping dangerously close to the chin-straps of London's boys in blue and they need help. Cybercrime is "the most rapidly expanding form of criminality", according to detective chief inspector Charlie McMurdie of the Met's specialist crime directorate.

The problem, as ever, is an organisational one. The Met alone has four different departments partly or fully focused on e-crime. Nationally, serious crimes should be handled by the recently formed Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA). Supposedly the UK's answer to the FBI, the agency has been widely criticised for lacking the focus of the National High Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) which it subsumed. Last year, ex-FBI agent and Microsoft's chief security advisor, Ed Gibson, claimed that replacing the NHTCU with SOCA was a mistake and would complicate the reporting process for e-crime.

Criminal gangs are smart enough to exploit sophisticated and efficient cell and network structures that are not subverted easily. If the police are going to stand a chance of keeping pace — let alone making a dent in this problem — they must have an equally robust structure. Resurrecting the NHTCU is one option, but a retrograde step would be a mistake when dealing with such a quickly evolving foe.

However, the past could hold the key in one respect. The British Transport Police (BTP), formed in 1948, was a direct reaction to network-centric crime of a different kind. The BTP's financing model, backed largely by the train-operating companies, could be a useful model for tackling the historically under-funded drive against e-crime.

John Reid may have a lot on his plate, but it would be a serious mistake to ignore the Met's warning or write off e-crime as an elitist distraction from real crime prevention. As the government and the private sector realise the efficiency of moving more core services online, e-crime levels will increase accordingly. No matter how difficult it proves, this is one tough nut the home secretary cannot afford to ignore.

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