Cyber Crime in NI – can we tell if the PSNI e-Crime unit is effective or the right size?

PSNI logoBBC NI’s Vincent Kearney has been behind the scenes at the PSNI’s e-Crime Unit, a 21-strong team who have the tools and expertise to recover data and extract forensic information from mobile phones and computer hard drives.

Other than the NI Policing Board and a few academics, Vincent Kearney’s interview with ACC Will Kerr (Good Morning Ulster, immediately after 8am news) provides the most detailed picture of PSNI’s practice and approach to cyber-crime than any reference I can find online.

Is 21 the right number of officers?

There is an information vacuum – presumably a deliberate one – about law enforcement agencies’ capabilities in NI, never mind across the UK.

The National Crime Agency’s Cyber Crime Unit works with the nine regional units as well as GCHQ, CERT, academics, and international bodies. The NCA don’t break down their workforce figures to show what proportion of their staff focus on cyber-crime. (3,500 NCA Officers have received Digital Awareness Training … but there’s nothing to suggests this is any more than a sheep-dipping computer-based training.)

An NI Policing Board report from February 2014 points to a low public awareness of PSNI efforts to tackle cyber-crime. However, that reflects the PSNI’s low key publicity rather than measuring the efficacy of their investigations.

There’s very little public data to assess the effectiveness of the e-Crime Unit.

  • How many cases are they dealing with each month?
  • How many cases go to PPS?
  • How many convictions?
  • How often does their work feed into larger fraud and abuse investigations?
  • How much of their work is reactive, and how much is proactive?
  • Are these officers having to deal with social media hate crime reports, or are they just gathering physical electronic forensics?
  • Is there much of a back log of equipment waiting to be scanned?

These are all questions I’d expect the NI Policing Board and its Performance Committee to ask, preferably in public session rather than solely in private.

One thing is for sure. The number of officers and civilian support staff will increase.

Vincent Kearney was given a headline figure of 8 million images being scanned last week by the e-Crime unit. While this is a large number there’s little context of how many evidentially significant images were detected from amongst the family photos and selfies. From memory, Vincent’s commentary on GMU around 7:45am said that 44 computers had been examined last week. That’s an average of 180,000 images per computer … How many images do you have on your computer at home?

The internet has few walls and very porous borders. We normally enjoy that freedom and lack of boundaries. But so do those who maliciously profit from the internet, in some cases exploiting and abusing others – children and adults – and taking advantage of those who are vulnerable to their attacks. Criminals will exploit any available technology. They have inventive minds, and it’s only through partnership that the PSNI will keep up with new exploits and nefarious techniques.

  • Has the PSNI developed links with QUB’s Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT)?
  • Are the 21 officers bogged down in the paperwork and time-zone challenging negotiations with international crime agencies to get websites taken down and data collected from remote locations, or are they solely working on forensics?

From abusive hate crime on social media, sexually exploitive images, financial fraud, phishing attempts and trying to guess or change your Ebay password, ransomware demanding payment in lieu of deleting your data, and personal blackmail being run along the lines of a call centre from countries thousands of miles away there is a lot of cyber crime around. The annual Information Security Breach survey conducted for the UK Government, published in June 2015, showed that:

  • 69% of large organisations and 38% of small businesses admitting [that they were aware] they “were attacked by an unauthorised outsider in the last year” – that’s a significant increase on the previous year, though may be due to greater awareness as well as increased attacks
  • 30% of large organisations and 16% of small businesses suffered Denial of Service attacks in the last year
  • 75% of large organisations and 31% of small businesses suffered staff related security breaches (though much due to inadvertent human error)

It’s good that the PSNI have partially lifted up the covers and let the public see inside their cyber-tent. It’s the equivalent of driving a PSNI liveried car around streets to dissuade carjackers. However, more detail is needed to understand the impact of their work and any gaps in their provision.

Vincent’s report runs on BBC Newsline tonight at 6.30pm.

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