Crime pays - and pays very well in cyberspace

Opinion: It's time for a united front against online fraud

Opinion: It's time for a united front against online fraud

E-crime has become too great a menace to ignore, says Simon Moores. Here's hoping some international co-ordination between the public and private sector can start improving matters.

It's been five years since the first e-Crime Congress and this month leading figures from government, business, finance and law-enforcement will assemble in London once again, to explore, discuss - and hopefully - suggest some solutions to deal with an epidemic of crime in cyberspace.

A recent DTI report to the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee conceded that the last three to four years have seen the emergence of virtual organised crime groups which are highly organised and operate exclusively via the internet.

Their membership is geographically dispersed and multinational, and their main goal is the exploitation of the internet to steal personal data and identities to facilitate fraud.

These groups continue to grow in size, number and sophistication.

'Broadband Britain', as you might expect, is the most popular place in the world for such groups to do business. After all, there are 17 million internet bank accounts in the UK and more than £20bn was spent online last year by UK customers.

And it's not just the individual at risk - criminals are also targeting corporate networks on a regular basis, attempting to steal information, usually financial and personal data, held on customer databases.

It's a grim picture. It's largely about protecting identity - the Achilles heel of the digital society. Law enforcement around the planet simply doesn't have the budget or the physical and technical resources to properly deal with an agile threat that moves at internet speed.

In fact, as e-crime figures are still not officially reported in the nation's crime statistics, we have no true idea of the size of the problem.

In any case, if you happen to be a clever, organised computer criminal indulging in identity theft, the chances of 'doing bird' are low enough to make cyber crime an attractive career option.

Perhaps we can count our blessings that the skills required in computer science are now so poorly subscribed to in our own society that the best computer criminals are likely to be found in other countries with a stronger emphasis on a technology education.

Politicians are at last starting to take e-crime seriously, although real solutions remain thin on the ground. This year the e-Crime Congress, an event I helped organise, will hear from UK politicos such as Home Office minister Vernon Coaker, shadow home affairs minister James Brokenshire and information commissioner Richard Thomas.

They will be joined by officials from Russia and Nigeria, law enforcement agencies as well as private companies such as Microsoft, PayPal and Visa. The goal of the event is to search for new ideas, partnerships and solutions in the fight against the international crime gangs that are threatening the future success of the UK's growing online economy.

I would say that we have reached - or passed - a critical point in the history of the internet. Large parts of the economy and government services are now dependent on the internet as a transactional platform and the pace of transition continues to accelerate, as we move towards web 2.0 and even web 3.0 models of use.

At the same time, the daily impact from online crime spreads like a brushfire, leading one of the architects of the internet, Vint Cerf, to warn recently of a pandemic with up to a quarter of computers on the net available to cyber criminals in so-called botnets.

We are presented with a simple 'tail wags dog' challenge that needs urgent international action. Arguably, the darker side of the internet carries the initiative and is starting to exercise a level of control that works against the interests of the billions of people and businesses that increasingly rely on it.

Can we continue as we are? I don't think so because the levels of crime will become economically unsustainable. Is there a quick solution? No - but a recognition of the true scale of the problem and a commitment to act multilaterally against the sources of online crime among the governments of the G8 would be a good start.