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Businesses are being urged to report hacking attempts and incidents of Internet-based extortion to the police, rather than keep quiet for fear of damage to their reputations.

This change in attitude could become crucial to the success of the UK's National Hi-Tech Crime Unit.

The unit, due to be operational in April this year, will receive £25 million in Home Office funding over three years to set up a "Cyber Sweeney"* squad, which is expected to employ around 30 officers and additional support staff. It will also have to find at least £250,000 to set up a suitable computer forensics lab.

Around £10 million of this money will be distributed to those forces which need to develop their own capacity to deal with computer crime, and in fact the "vast majority" of enquiries will continue to be dealt with by local forces. The role of the Unit will be one of advice (including the development of best practices) and co-ordination.

The unit will also conduct operations at a national and international level and investigate offences including fraud, hacking, industrial espionage, spreading viruses, money laundering, organised property theft and denial of service attacks. The list goes on.

Apparently, the worst problems are (as always) malicious code and internal hacking, but electronic extortion is becoming a growing problem and one which law enforcement can better tackle than industry.

Set against the money spent on combating car crime, the funding looks meagre and, privately, those involved in helping create the Unit describe it as a "useful start" only.

There's also the question of how the police will work with private sector organisations, which - generally - stay quiet about crimes perpetrated against them over the Internet, largely because they are fearful of unfavourable publicity which might harm the reputations of their businesses.

Usually, firms which fall victim to crackers do not turn to the police who gather evidence and prosecute. Instead they call up security consultants, who will advise them how to shore up their defences.

Neil Barrett, technical director of Information Risk Management, and a long-time advisor to the police on security, said better co-operation is needed, and that if more firms report problems then more funding will be available to tackle the problem.

Punishment (or lack of) for electronic crimes, Barrett admitted, remains a problem but he argued that wasn't an argument for keeping police out of problems.

"Companies, whose systems might be breached in the course of a wider attack, need to do something rather than sweeping things under the carpet. If they don't they could be liable for attacks on other people," said Barrett.

Barrett insists that complicated crimes on the Internet can be investigated but more needs to done to forge stronger working relationships and sharpen up best practice, key aims (as previously reported) of next week's conference on hi-tech crime.

Steve Bailey, head of security at Complete Data Services, said that firms have been reluctant to be open about security since the Citibank admission that it was hacked backfired on the company.

In 1994, Citibank said it was the victim of a Russian hacker who transferred $11 million out of Citibank's New York mainframe computers, an admission which unsettled some customers who took their business elsewhere.

Bailey, an ex-Royal Air Force policeman, is giving up his own time in order to train officers in using computers, covering subjects such as evidence handling and the Internet.

There are only six computer crime units amongst UK police forces and the idea is that by appointing officers naturally interested in technology, who are suitably trained to avoid daft questions to service providers that have gone along with enforcing the RIP Act.

Police in the unit will have a difficult tightrope to walk: on the one hand trying to get organisations to come forward with security problems and on the other enforcing the RIP Act on an unwilling industry, all with modest funds. It's going to be a tough act to pull off. ®

* The Sweeney is the nickname given to the London Metropolitan Police's Flying Squad (Cockney rhyming slang - Flying Squad = Sweeney Todd, the legendary 19th century barber who killed his customers and used their flesh for meat pies). Thanks to a top 70s TV crime series of the same name, The Sweeney are forever asssociated with nicking armed blaggers, driving brown Ford Granadas through warehouses full of empty cardboard boxes, and shagging birds.

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