Electronic crime needs its own force

The Government needs to introduce a coordinated approach to combating electronic crime, and to fund it properly

The Police launching a series of seminars on preventing electronic crime is a welcome move. The £500 attendance fee is less welcome: surely the police are already being paid to stop crime.

As it turns out, the seminars are being run by a private company on behalf of the Metropolitan Police, hence the charge. You can hardly blame Scotland Yard for outsourcing this particular requirement -- its Computer Crime Unit has just nine officers, so can hardly spare a couple to run courses for a few days.

While you could argue that businesses should pay for the advice they get, this still looks like a classic case of underfunding. Indeed, one group of lobbyists, the European Information Society Group (EURIM), is pushing for more funding to be made available for the fight against electronic crime. More money is needed, but it will be wasted without reforms elsewhere.

The National Hi-Tech Crime Unit was launched in 2001 with the aim of being a central body for fighting electronic crimes, with £25m funding over three years. Those three years has now passed, and while there has been a respectable level of success in detection and prevention, even the Home Office has admitted more needs to be done.

The problem lies in the lack of coordination. Despite the formation of the NHTCU, there are still many bodies in the UK with responsibility for detecting and preventing electronic crime: as well as the NHTCU there are local police forces, the Internet Watch Foundation, and the Information Commissioner. That doesn't even take into account the use of new technologies to commit old crimes: from fraud to forgery, every part of policing must be able to respond effectively.

The problem for the victim of an electronic crime is which of these bodies to report the crime to. For minor crimes, your local police force may be the right people, but if the problem is too technical they probably won't have the expertise or resources to deal with it. What's worse, lack of training means the local bobbies may not know what to do with your report. Equally, the NHTCU won't realistically be able to deal with every small incident that's reported to it without a far greater number of staff.

We need a single cohesive policy for dealing with electronic crime, and a single point of responsibility to make it happen. IT and telecommunications can be a great force for good, both in business and society, but it can only do this if the electronic world is policed as effectively as the physical world.