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Sherlock Holmes in Cyberspace

It was William Gibson’s novel, ‘Neuromancer’ that offered us an alternative vision of a connected future. A new dimension called ‘cyberspace’ where the clever criminals thrived.

Three years into the 21st century, we are uncomfortably close to the future described in the pages of Gibson’s prophetic novel. So close in fact, that Whitehall is reportedly giving serious thought to the idea of recruiting a new kind of special constable, the ‘Cyberspecials’, volunteers from the IT industry who might be able to assist the police in fighting rising crime over the Internet.

In principle, the argument looks good to the public. More police officers, if not on the streets, then in cyberspace instead, even if they are still only civilian computer experts trained in gathering evidence to the same forensic standards as the police.

In practise, the idea strikes me as impractical, with suspiciously more spin than substance. The unusual thing about the suggestion is that this is the first time, I have seen it raised in public as a serious proposal and nothing I have heard from my friends in the police so far, suggests that they need to conscript civilian ‘experts’ from the IT industry to assist in their investigations.

I am not entirely sure what crimes these new ‘Cyberspecials’ might be called-upon to tackle that the police can’t already get in the way of direct assistance or secondment from industry. The National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) deals with serious and organised crime and this can overlap into the messy and unpleasant area of paedophilia, as we recently witnessed with the success of Operation Ore. Nobody I know, has suggested that the NHTCU is under-resourced. Quite the contrary, as I am told the NHTCU has never needed to call on the assistance of industry, not to say that it wouldn’t if it felt it had to. Industry in general, is more than happy to make available the highly specialised skills the Police might need in an investigation. As an example, the police might ask to ‘borrow’ an expert on a particularly unusual or esoteric Operating System or aspect of commercial encryption.

There is another aspect of concern when we start talking about special constables. In practise, ‘Specials’ are minimally compensated for their work and so who, in the busy world of IT, is likely to have the available bandwidth to offer time for free or at police pay levels? In fact, this kind of role is more likely to attract the very opposite of the kind of person that the police might want to attract in the first place.

Who will be responsible for the standards and training of ‘cyberspecials’ and how would they be compensated? What will the cost to the taxpayer be? The Police would need people with a professional track record of both experience and integrity if they are to deal with evidence in criminal cases. If I’m honest, the cyberspecials idea, in its present form, is an absolute can of worms which is unlikely to deliver the expertise the Police don’t yet feel they need in dealing with serious and organised computer crime. A continued programme of secondment and close cooperation with industry still seems to work best in my mind but then the Home Office constantly comes up with ‘off-the-wall ideas. On this occasion however, someone may have been inhaling the evidence.


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