The British public needs to snap out of its complacency about cybercrime or risk becoming victim to increasingly sophisticated criminal networks that are operating online, the head of the country’s e-crime unit has warned.
Janet Williams, who takes the lead on cybercrime at the Association of Chief Police Officers, said people seemed to think that being technophobic was quaint and slightly comical.
She was drumming into her detectives that this was no longer acceptable and that the public needed to change its way of thinking too, she said.
“What worries me is that people still think of cybercrime and cyber-attacks as being a little bit like maths. If you go to a dinner party, someone might say that they don’t really get maths and everyone laughs and titters. “Not being able to understand it is the equivalent of not being able to read.
“It is unacceptable now and on that basis I have been saying to detectives that if they don’t understand what is happening with cybercrime then they shouldn’t be a detective. I really mean that.”
Williams added: “Most of my working life has been in CID and counter-terrorism. I don’t think that in the future detectives will be equipped to be able to deal with these things if they don’t understand the nature of cybercrime and I think that multinational organisations, public and private organisations, need to ensure that they understand the threats to their organisation.”
Asked whether she thought the public also needed to make more effort to understand the dangers, she replied: “Absolutely.”
Williams, one of the most senior officers at Scotland Yard, said business leaders should be ensuring that their firms were properly protected against the theft of valuable intellectual property. “Chief executive officers need to be personally reassured the controls and protections are in place. Intellectual property rights are very important to the UK.”
She said she was particularly concerned that industry and universities had not completely understood the new landscape. “[They] need to think it through. I don’t think there is sufficient appreciation of the risks,” she said.
Williams has set up a “cyber flying squad” based at Scotland Yard, and said her team of 35 detectives and specialists were having significant success.
But she conceded that she needed the help of some of the biggest multinational corporations. Most had sophisticated cyber defences and the ability to track criminals around the world. In many cases, she said, “their intelligence systems are better than ours”.
Williams has asked the Home Office to consider pressing for changes to the system of commission rogatoires – the letters of request for legal or judicial assistance sent by one country to another.
With online criminals able to move across borders in the blink of an eye, police have found that the traditional ways of seeking assistance from other countries are outdated.
“We have made recommendations to the Home Office,” Williams said. “We have outlined the nature of the problem. But it is up to them to find a solution.”
During last week’s visit by the US president, Barack Obama, the UK ratified the Budapest convention on cybercrime, which should speed up investigations in some European countries and the US.
Reliable figures about the scale of crime online are difficult to assess, but GCHQ, the government communications headquarters at Cheltenham, estimates that “a figure well into billions” is credible.
One study earlier this year estimated that cybercrime costs the UK more than £27bn a year.
Police know of hundreds of hacking forums, on which thousands of stolen UK credit card details are available for sale for as little as £1.50.
Whitehall officials said that there was a “noticeable spike” in the use of such forums on Friday and Saturday nights, possibly because people returning home from an evening out might have their guard down and were surfing sites they would otherwise ignore.
• Nick Webber, 19, was jailed for five years this year for masterminding a multimillion-pound “cyber supermarket” where criminals could order stolen credit card details or learn how to make illegal drugs – and even bombs. Webber, of Hampshire, ran GhostMarket.net, which at its peak had more than 8,000 users. He was caught out by a ”compromised” credit card.
• In 2005, an audacious hi-tech scam to plunder £220m from a London-based Japanese bank was foiled at the 11th hour. The Israeli gang was reported to have hidden spy software on the bank’s computers to steal passwords of accounts.
• The bank accounts of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Oprah Winfrey were targeted by an internet scam artist based in New York in 2002. Abraham Abdallah, a restaurant dishwasher, was caught trying to transfer $10m into his account. Jason Rodrigues
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