It's official. The National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) no longer exists. The UK organisation that specialised in hunting down and preventing cybercrime has been subsumed into the newly created Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA).
While we welcome the implication that the government now believes IT-related crime to be serious, the fact that there is no longer an agency with "Hi-Tech" in its title is a step backwards in many ways.
The Prime Minister claims that SOCA will help to combat gangsters, drug barons and people-traffickers, but security experts have already told us that its creation will hamper attempts to stop cybercrime.
Not that the NHTCU has received the attention or funding it deserved. At the launch of a recent CBI report into online security, Microsoft's outspoken chief security officer Ed Gibson voiced strong concerns about the NHTCU, claiming that the organisation had been chronically under-funded from the outset.
More worryingly, as Gibson pointed out, the mechanisms for reporting IT related crimes were convoluted and ineffective — even with the NHTCU in place. "I bet if I asked anyone in this room, 'who would you report an electronic crime to in the Police?' no one would know," he said.
As a former FBI agent himself, Gibson is well qualified to comment on the creation of an FBI style agency in the UK. He believes that SOCA would make it even harder for businesses to know who to report technology crimes to, and will exacerbate what he perceives as a "real lack of meaningful statistics" around high-tech crime.
Creating an integrated body that pulls together powers from a variety of agencies does make some sense. Organised crime syndicates, like legitimate organisations, use technology as a tool rather than an end in itself. But given the worrying increase in technology-related crimes, we hope that the creation of SOCA isn't simple an excuse to realise cost savings by consolidating a multitude of expensive individual organisations.
The increasing technical sophistication of criminal gangs demands that the police and other agencies invest the money and resources in keeping pace. The government may claim that the synergies that can be realised by creating SOCA will outweigh the loss of focus on technology crime that will inevitably follow the loss of the NHTCU. We remain to be convinced.