The Home Office will not be recording cybercrime figures, despite investing £25m in a National High-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) launched on Wednesday.
The failure to quantify how much criminal activity is taking place on the Net has become a bone of contention between the Home Office and groups which oppose government plans to increase police powers to snoop on electronic communications. Up-to-date British crime figures have been collated by local police forces and recorded according to the offence, rather than by the mechanism used to commit the crime.
Despite the Home Office's commitment to tackling computer-based crime, it has no plans to gather or publish official cybercrime figures in the future.
"We do not intend to distinguish the way in which crimes are committed -- an offence is the same whether it is committed on or offline," said a Home Office spokesperson. "We're simply looking at new ways of committing old crimes, which needs to be recorded in a consistent manner according to the offence rather than how it was committed."
This seems to contradict the police's desire to find out how much criminal activity is going on online. Launching the NHTCU, deputy director general of NCIS Roger Gaspar admitted his concern over the lack of statistical evidence available on cybercrime.
"One of the issues law enforcement faces is that the true extent of IT-based criminality is as yet uncertain because no statistics have been collated hitherto. Active investigation will generate intelligence with which to assess the nature and extent of the problem and so gauge the impact of the strategy," he said at the launch.
The National Crime Intelligence Squad (NCIS), which published its Project Trawler report in 1999, was commissioned specifically to look at the implications of computer crime and raise awareness of its threat. The report defined computer crime as "a crime in which an IT network is directly and significantly instrumental in the commission of the crime". Despite taking three years, the report failed to collate any cybercrime statistics.
"Project Trawler wasn't perfect, but it hadn't been done before," admitted an NCIS spokesperson. "We are an intelligence organisation, not an evidential organisation."
Yaman Akdeniz, director of Cyber Rights and Cyber Liberties, brands the Home Office's approach "suspicious". "It's important to collect and publish these details and statistics in order to provide more transparency in justifying the High-Tech Crime Unit and government initiatives such as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIPA)."
The Home Office recently rejected a recommendation from the Better Regulation Taskforce (BRTF) to commission an independent enquiry into the effects of RIPA, which will give police and other authorities the power to intercept data transmitted over private networks and demand decryption keys from the place where data is encrypted.
"Statistics are needed to balance this sort of intrusion into people's lives -- the Unit will be doing its job in reference to this Act," said Akdeniz.
According to the Home Office, number-crunching is not necessary to prove the growth of Internet offences in proportion to the growth of cutting edge technology and its take-up. "It's about the growing evidence of these crimes taking place -- representations have been made by the industry, police forces and the public at large," said a Home Office spokesperson.
The government's point of view is backed up by analysts. "There's such strong evidence of the need for this kind of a body based on headline news stories, that having statistical backup, to me, doesn't seem the highest of priorities," said Chris Potter, partner of e-business security at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "It needs to be weighed up against the bureaucratic cost."
Akdeniz, however, believes the government has a duty to show how taxpayers' money is being spent, and argues some of the £25m should be invested in gathering statistics.
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