A recent report published by the National Crime Agency shed some light on the career paths of a number of young cyber-criminals, the research identifies several cases that highlight that the ‘slippery slope' theory – which argues that a potential criminal begins with low level misdemeanours and progresses gradually to more serious offences – is just as applicable in the virtual world as it is for traditional crimes.
It found that offenders begin to participate in gaming cheat websites and game modification forums and then progress to criminal hacking forums without considering the consequences.
It also disproves a commonly held stereotype that cyber-crime is committed by social outcasts and concludes that in fact social relationships, albeit online, are key and that forum interaction and building of reputation drives young cyber-criminals.
The fact is, presently, the gift of anonymity and the ability to purchase off-the-shelf malware with relative ease, means cyber-criminals have the advantage over law enforcement while operating online.
As one senior police officer put it to me recently, while the police have improved in terms of resources and capability, cyber-crime is evolving quicker than they are.
The NCA argues a visible online presence is needed for prevention to work and they are correct.
Law enforcement must give the impression they are winning the battle.
Estonia, a country with one of the most advanced digital government systems in the world, introduced the concept of ‘web constables' after suffering a series of devastating cyber-attacks in 2007, while their role was limited to acting as a reporting hub for online crime and dispensing prevention advice, I think the idea could be extrapolated.
If through cooperation with both ISPs and browser providers, we could provide a select group of highly vetted police officers with an ability to proactively look for threats through the analysis of internet data, this could begin to turn the tables on the criminals.
One solution could be to create a ‘police avatar' which comes pre-embedded within browsers. The avatar could then link to reporting and advice sections of website specific to a user's locality. It could also act as a conduit to allow browsing data to be passed directly to police in real-time.
Admittedly, there are several difficulties converting a traditionally analogue role into a digital one. Firstly, the technical challenges of creating a legitimised online presence able to monitor threats emanating from millions of PCs and then analyse and categorise them in real time would be significant and secondly, the idea of opening up the internet for police officers to patrol at their discretion creates a whole host of privacy issues.
However, one IT expert I spoke to, while acknowledging the potential privacy outcry, said the idea was “definitely doable”
Overall, as society and the internet becomes ever more ingrained, despite the challenges it will present, I believe the concept of moving the Office of Constable online, is both the logical and responsible choice.
Contributed by Chris Allen
Journalist specialising in policing, crime and security