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Top cop: e-crime is the new drugs

'We need to terrify politicians... appropriately'

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Forget guns, gangs and porn - one of Britain's top cops has said that e-crime is the most significant criminal threat facing the UK, and that the government is failing to respond effectively.

Chief Constable Ian Johnston, Head of Crime at the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and boss of the British Transport Police, was speaking at the Microsoft UK Public Sector Law Enforcement Conference this morning in Reading.

"E-crime is the most rapidly expanding form of crime," he said, addressing an audience of police high-tech specialists from across the UK.

The chief constable gave it as his opinion that the fight against electronic villainy was under-resourced and lacked cohesive government backing. He said that British politicians "don't seem to have an appropriate sense of fear" regarding the issue.

"We need to terrify, encourage or excite them," he said. "The potential for public outcry is enormous".

There was a hint that perhaps too much police effort was being devoted to reassuring the public regarding intensively-reported but statistically rare violent crimes, with "guns and gangs" described as "the latest moral panic".

By contrast, according to Mr Johnston, the statistics by which police forces assess the amount of crime and their effectiveness in dealing with it "don't reflect the importance of e-crime".

"Some [UK police] forces don't have a high-tech crime unit at all," he said. "Those that do spend 90 per cent of their time on child pornography."

The chief constable suggested that it wasn't just the cops who were behind the curve. He said that at present there is a "postcode lottery of justice [on e-crime offences] according to the understanding of the local judiciary".

Also on the rostrum this morning was Detective Superintendent Charlie McMurdie of the Metropolitan Police central e-crime unit. She too saw judicial understanding of computer offences as a "major issue", and said that the police service had a "capability gap" with respect to "major cyber attacks".

The chief constable said that ACPO was planning to raise the profile of electronic crime, and that the organisation would announce a dedicated portfolio-holder for e-crime "within weeks".

Superintendent McMurdie described plans within the police service for a national Police Central e-crime Unit, or PCeU, based on her own team. Apparently the organisation currently has a budget of £1.3m from the Met, but no other funding has yet appeared.

The former National High-Tech Crime Unit became part of the Serious and Organised Crime Agency when SOCA formed up in 2005. Since then, in the opinion of many observers, the central e-crime policing function has effectively disappeared.

McMurdie suggested that the PCeU would benefit hugely from IT industry involvement, perhaps extending to staff on secondment from the tech biz.

"I'd so much rather have a team with someone from a bank, from an ISP, and cops... rather than just pure cops," she said.

Speaking to the Reg after their speech, the two officers said that electronic crime was the hot new field for career criminals, just as the drugs trade was in the 1970s, with greater profits to be earned and lower sentences - or no sentences - in the event of getting caught.

Asked how he saw the Home Office's plans for a national biometric ID card scheme in the context of identity theft and e-crime, Johnston described it as a "double-edged sword". However, he also said that "any means of proving who you are is a good thing".

Both cops felt that high-tech methods and tactics would be of use to terrorists, too.

"It would be easier to shut down the Stock Exchange electronically than to do it with a bomb," said Johnston.

"If you're doing something against [the transport system], it makes sense to combine that with an electronic attack, say against the London Ambulance Service," added McMurdie. "I would."

Overall, dealing with ID theft and e-crime in general, Johnston says: "There's no golden bullet." ®

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