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No Hiding Place

According to this week's forthcoming report by the DTI, computer crime and bad software is costing the country as much as £10 billion each year. That's almost as much as the unofficial figure given by The Sunday Times for benefit fraud.

Incidences of compuer-based attacks against companies are rising steadily and the DTI have found that four out of five companies have become victims of viruses, hackers, fraud or all three in the last twelve months. This is hardly a surprise. We know it's getting worse and indeed, only a year ago, the government's antidote to the threat of cybercrime, The National High-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) was launched in a blaze of publicity, surrounded by a special ‘Hacking exhibit’, at the Science Museum in London.

At the time, I was asked to offer comment on the launch and the role of the NHTCU for both the BBC and Sky News and speculated whether such a relatively small team would have any measurable impact on one of the world’s fasted growing criminal opportunities.

So, a year later and this time, not at The Science Museum but next door at the Natural History Museum, I invited Tony Neate, the NHTCU’s industry liaison officer, to a meeting of Security First, an industry forum, to offer an update on the unit’s progress.

We should remember that when the NHTCU was launched by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, last April, it was with £25 million of funding. This was split two-ways, with £15 million going to establish a national unit with 60 specialist officers within three years and £10 million to bring local police forces up to a benchmark standard for dealing with computer crime.

With cybercrime going through the ceiling, are our prisons now being filled with 'scrip-kiddies' and cyber criminals you might wonder? It’s never quite as simple as that, as Neate is quick to remind me. The cybercrime unit only really became operational in October and since then, it’s been busy developing the necessary international relationships with other police forces, working closely with the NISCC and chasing cyber criminals and paedophiles around the Web at every given opportunity. Already, the unit claims it has “taken down” two or three ‘Virtual banks’ and a number of the popular West African bank fraud scams, which many of us find in our mailbox at least once a month, from allegedly distressed members of the Abacha family or their friends and which surprisingly, people still fall for.

Neate is proud that in what is really six months of operational existence the unit has already conducted ten operations, is working with twenty-two countries, has made twenty-seven arrests and collected three terabytes of evidence.

With 11,000 new users and 20,000 new Websites appearing every day, it’s hardly surprising, Neate points out that the villains are chasing the money and some of the international gangs, in places such as the Ukraine or Russia, are becoming extraordinarily sophisticated, challenging the NHTCU to stay at the very leading edge of the technology.

This is of course just the beginning and with one in five companies experiencing a security breach of one form or another, Neate argues that the unit’s role has an educational element to its work, reminding businesses that computer crime can be even more damaging than a physical crime and offering the guidance that the judiciary needs in assessing the seriousness of cybercrime in its wildly different forms.

Unlike the United States perhaps, there is a reluctance to report cybercrime activity in this country, as companies worry over the potential damage to their reputation that might accompany an approach to the Police. One reason why the DTI decided it was time to undertake its own survey. Neate offers an example of one international car giant, who refused to accept their web site had been hacked even though he had a mirror image of the defaced site. Businesses should be as prepared to report cybercrime to the Police as they would any other crime. Moving forward then, Neate believes that the NHTCU needs to build trust among business and develop a partnership with industry, with the objective of establishing a confidential, national cyber crime reporting system and a code of good practise.

In all fairness, the NHTCU hasn’t really had the time to make its presence felt within the industry. None the less, it’s encouraging to believe that in support of the Prime Minister’s dream of making the UK “The best possible place for eCommerce”, that we have the “Men from Uncle”, the NHTCU, steadily developing the skills, relationships and procedures to protect us from the unwanted attentions of the ‘World Wide Weasels’.

The big “If” of course, is whether any agency, the FBI, the NHTCU or even the Men from Uncle, can successfully direct the methodical and relatively slow pace of Police work against a global criminal epidemic of a speed and scale which we have yet to measure with any real accuracy. I for one hope they find the answer before companies start to wonder whether being on the Internet is worth the risk.

I wonder, how do you handcuff someone in cyberspace? I should have asked.

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