UK police crack down on local hackers

Surrey hackers investigated after DDoS attacks

Police in Surrey are investigating the role that suspected local computer hackers may have played in orchestrating attacks on popular IRC (Internet Relay Chat) servers in Europe and the US in recent months.

UK police say they have succeeded in "disrupting" much of the activity in the UK. The investigation has been conducted in cooperation with investigators in other Europe nations and the US.

Detective Constable Richard Brownhall of Surrey police says that numerous servers hosting IRC channels have become the focus of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks apparently in retribution after hackers were removed from certain channels for promoting illegal activity. Brownhall says that the investigation is ongoing and UK police are continuing to cooperate with their opposite numbers abroad.

According to Temporary Detective Inspector Simon Lambert, the police have succeeded in disrupting much of this activity.

Two major IRC channel networks in particular, Undernet and EFnet, have come under attack in recent months. This has affected servers based in the UK, the US and elsewhere in Europe. The attack involves taking over numerous machines -- often located in different countries -- in order to bombard a server with an avalanche of fake information, rendering it inoperable. It is particularly hard to combat.

Philippe Bourcier, of CyberAbuse.org -- an independent organisation that monitors antisocial activity online -- says that some of the attacks have ceased and says it is good that the authorities are taking them seriously.

Bourcier, whose own servers were recently targeted by a hacker in Romania as part of a dispute earlier this month, says that the FBI has worked with the police in Romania to resolve the situation.

"It's encouraging that the UK police are investigating them," he says. "People need to be more conscious that what happened to us could also happen to their business. Kiddies sometimes don't need more reason than 'fun' or 'boredom' to start their attacks."

The distributed nature of the Internet means that cooperation between international law enforcement agencies has become an increasingly important part of computer crime investigations. According to UK police, international cooperation is vital to their ongoing work.

Lambert says that this cooperative effort has been very successful. "Although there are moves afoot, an ongoing process within Europe and the G8 countries, there need to be ways in which we can each share information on suspects and deal with them more quickly and effectively in their own countries, rather than seeking to prosecute each other's nationals for offences committed overseas," Lambert told ZDNet.

The Council of Europe is currently developing a draft cybercrime treaty, designed to align international cybercrime laws and make it easier for police to co-operate on investigations. Some privacy advocates have voiced concern that the laws could lead to intrusive surveillance and draconian restrictions on computer security tools, but according to the police some level of cooperation is necessary.

Lambert says that the international nature of much computer crime makes it a time consuming process to bring criminals to book. At the moment, he says the best way to pursue a suspected criminal is to refer victims to local officers and allow them to prosecute for crimes committed in their own country. He believes that the formation of the UK's new high-tech crime unit along with an international treaty on cyber crime will help make it possible to prosecute computer criminals for crimes that transcend international boundaries.

"At the moment there isn't any real coordination," says Ian Johnston-Bryden of computer security firm Firetrench. "There are no boundaries and the only way to do it is to have some electronic Interpol."

Police in the UK also rely on computer security consultants for expertise and forensics in their investigations. "We very much make use of people who supply security to the industry," says Lambert. "There are people who can come in and plug the gaps in our knowledge."

Both officers are keen to promote the notion of responsibility. ISPs, commercial users and home users must take responsibility for ensuring reasonable security of their own systems. Surrey police strongly advocate crime prevention and it's applicable to computing as much as any other area of crime", said Brownhall.

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