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MPs (finally) debate cybercrime

Steep learning curve

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MPs finally got around to a rare debate on cybercrime earlier this week.

The debate - held on Wednesday morning, hours after Barack Obama's historic US presidential victory - was characterised by much mutual backslapping and many members of parliament praising each other for simply turning up. There are a few nuggets of good ideas on there but the quality of discussion compares unfavourably to House of Lords select committee hearings on cybercrime, which had the benefit of bringing in testimony from cybercrime experts.

The MPs began the debate with a hapless discussion about advanced fee frauds. The mechanics of 419 frauds are well known to Reg readers but seem to be almost as much as mystery to MPs as the geography of Africa is to former Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin.

The quality of the discussion improved when the politicians discussed the perils of buying medications from online pharmacy sites and how phishing can affect confidence in e-commerce. Additionally, the point made by Labour MP David Taylor about the lack of hard data about the scale of cybercrimes touches on a hot-button issue.

The debate, convened by independent MP and hospital campaigner Dr Richard Taylor, touches on the need for a general education campaign on cybercrime. The problems of eBay auction fraud and the establishment of a eCrime Unit were also discussed.

At times the transcript of the debate reads like a comedy spoof. References are made to comments by the the Duke of Buckingham in the 1600s and Pinocchio.

Admittedly there might be something to be learned from the scam in Pinocchio where lazy boys are turned into donkeys, but the overall quality of the discussion in the main chamber makes one think that discussions about technical subjects, such as cybercrime, are better held in select committees where experts can be called upon to inform the discussion.

The discussion did not end with a clear idea of whether there would be any kind of follow-up action. Lawmaking, since the debate was convened at a quiet time and by an independent MP, was never on the agenda.

However, junior Home Office minister Alan Campbell did say that the government had allocated £29m over three years to implement the national fraud programme, which includes the establishment of a national fraud reporting centre. The minister quoted ACPO (police) figures that fraud costs £13.9bn per annum, a huge figure (25 times the losses attributable to credit card fraud alone - £535.2m) that puts the spending on fraud prevention in perspective.

We ran the transcript of the debate past Andrew Goodwill, director of credit card fraud prevention specialist the 3rd Man, who spends his working days fighting cybercrime. After agreeing that the debate was hardly elevated ("to think we pay these people") Goodwill supported an idea by MPs to have a cybercrime awareness week for the seven days from 5 January 2009.

"The week should be called 'lets crack cybercrime in 2009' or don`t be a cybercrime victim in 2009 and highlight a crime theme each day," Goodwill suggested. "I'm of the firm belief that the internet is becoming safer, and it will become more safe as more people are aware of their vulnerability. etailers, banks and consumers have taken a while to understand their vulnerabilities, and it has been a sharp learning curve, but we are now starting to see results. The 3rd Man, for example, has detected £500m worth of credit card crime alone this year. We have achieved this by understanding the etailers' vulnerabilities," he added. ®

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