Central e-crime unit waits for Home Office approval

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Police hope the Home Office will approve plans to create a central e-crime unit in the UK. Ministers are yet to agree £1.3m in start-up funding for a Policing Central E-Crime Unit (PCEU), proposed by ACPO (the Association of Chief Police Officers) and the Metropolitan Police.

The Metropolitan Police's head of e-crime, Detective Supt Charlie McMurdie, said that a business plan had been submitted and she was hopeful of an answer within "two to three" weeks. The proposed 50 strong unit will cost about £5m in total.

If created, the Met Police's Computer Crime Unit will be incorporated into the E-Crime unit, a contribution itself worth about £1.3m.

Det Supt McMurdie is looking to secure sponsorship, staff secondments, and products from industry. She is also looking to recruit special constables.

Speaking during a session at the Infosecurity conference on Wednesday, Det Supt McMurdie outlined some of the many challenges in policing cybercrime. Electronic crime involves cross border investigations that can be protracted and challenging. Because crimes are committed in a virtual marketplace there is less chance that crooks will be caught.

Since the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) was amalgamated with the Serious and Organised Crime Agency two years ago, commercial victims of cybercrime have been obliged to report problems to their local police forces, a situation that often proves unworkable.

Delegates at the Infosec session heard that one financial institution, based outside London, was obliged to ring up its local police force about credit card problems only to get the response: "What do you expect us to do?"

Consumers are obliged to report cybercrime to banks or auction houses, for example, rather than police. This too is working out badly and there's a widespread belief that cybercrimes more often than not go unreported.

David King, chair of the Information Security Awareness Forum (ISAF), said: "People don't have the foggiest where to report cybercrime."

Other countries have central e-crime units already. Several delegates at the debate lamented the incorporation of the NHTCU into a larger less-focused department. "With NHTCU you had someone to talk to. Since it absorbed into SOCA this dialogue has dropped to zero," said King, adding that this was because SOCA had different priorities.

Det Supt McMurdie defended her counterparts and explained that the e-crime unit will have a different role than the NHTCU. "SOCA focuses on international issues. It has more than enough offences to investigate. SOCA will have better engagement with the community. It plans to share information through forums," she explained.

SOCA was established in April 2006 following a merger of the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU), the investigative arm of HM Revenue & Customs on serious drug trafficking, and the Immigration Service's unit dealing with people trafficking.

Its top priorities in fighting drug dealing and organised immigration crime have prompted criticism from sections of the security community who reckon the fight against cybercrime is not getting the resources it deserves since the NHTCU merged into the larger intelligence agency.

The fondly-remembered NHTCU had its limitations, Det Supt McMurdie pointed out.

"NHTCU acted as a central point of contact but it didn't take on crime reports. If it had taken on all the reports it had received it would drown".

The investigative unit of the proposed E-Crime Unit, staffed by specialists from the Met's Computer Crime Unit, will be "more involved in law enforcement" than the NHTCU, she explained. "Even so we will not investigate every report."

At present, the Met's Computer Crime Unit specialises in investigations into botnets, denial of service attacks, phishing, and malware distribution. How this will change if and when it gets incorporated into the E-Crime Unit isn't altogether clear. The vast majority of computer crime investigations focus around child protection. ®

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