CRIME has been falling in Britain since the mid-1990s, as it has in much of the rich world. Car-related theft has plummeted by 79% since 1995 and burglary by 67%. The decline is partly due to technology; car immobilisers and house alarms make such crimes harder. The increased use of CCTV and DNA databases means criminals are more likely to be caught, and the rewards for burglary have decreased anyway because electronic gadgets are so cheap. The falling crime rate has come alongside big recent cuts in police budgets. By 2015, the coalition government will have trimmed 20%. Meanwhile, crime has moved online.
Britain is particularly at risk when it comes to cybercrime, argues Charlie McMurdie, a cyber-security expert at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), a consultancy. It is rich, its infrastructure for moving money around is slick, and it is saturated with technology. Over 60% of the population use smartphones. More than 80% of households are connected to the internet. Three-quarters of them shop online. According to PWC, 69% of companies in Britain experienced a cyber-security incident in the past year, compared to 59% globally.
The term “cybercrime” covers everything from sophisticated attacks on government websites to e-mails offering fake prizes. The more serious kinds—and the damage they cause—are obvious. But many are small in scale, though high in volume. There is a big difference between technically being the target of a cybercrime, such as receiving a fake friend-request on Facebook, and actually being harmed, points out David Wall, a criminologist at Durham University.
The scale of it is also hard to measure, in Britain as elsewhere. According to a study in October carried out by Get Safe Online, a government-supported group, half of Britons have experienced crime online—everything from identity theft to hacking to online abuse. But the Crime Survey for England and Wales, the best indicator of long-term trends, does not include any of it in its overall count (although the government is now evaluating the best ways of doing so). Government statisticians say that card and bank fraud could contribute 3.6-3.8m incidents of crime to the survey’s total. It that is true, it would reverse the decline in overall crime of the past decade.
Underreporting is rife. A Home Office study in October 2013 estimated that businesses reported only 2% of online incidents to the police. Earlier research showed that, among adult internet users, just 1% reported unauthorised access to their data (though that may have risen). Some victims do not realise a crime has taken place. Having your e-mail account hacked is annoying but few people report such crimes to the police; they turn instead to the internet company for help.
Businesses keep cyber attacks quiet, worried that customers and competitors will assume they have been compromised. In November Andrew Tyrie, chairman of a parliamentary committee, questioned Britain’s biggest banks about whether they were understating the true scale of fraud. Many companies and banks see little benefit in reporting attacks to the police, says Ms McMurdie of PWC. They prefer to go to firms such as hers which have the skills and resources for a fast response.
Public apathy persists, except around crimes such as online child abuse. Much cybercrime seems remote, compared with more tangible offences such as a burglary or an assault. The paucity of information about crime online, including its broader impact, does not help. Such poor intelligence makes it hard to deploy resources effectively. The police do not have ready access to much of the evidence of cybercrime. In November Britain’s police regulator criticised the English and Welsh forces for failing to keep pace with changing criminality, in particular cybercrime.
As a result, police are working more closely with private companies than they might on other crimes. In 2013 the government launched the Cyber Security Information Sharing Partnership which allows companies to share intelligence with each other and the government, including GCHQ, its electronic-monitoring agency. They can do so anonymously, mitigating fears about reputation damage.
A safe investment
The police are placing a growing emphasis on this kind of crime. The government is investing £860m ($1.4 billion) in its cyber-security programme, established in 2011 (though much has gone to the security and intelligence agencies which deal with more sophisticated cyber-threats). In August the Metropolitan Police set up FALCON, a unit to respond to cybercrime and fraud in London. It deals with online frauds that encourage people to hand over their money or personal details. Since 2009 Britons have been urged to report such fraud to a central body, Action Fraud. The National Fraud Investigation Bureau collates those reports and disseminates them to individual forces to investigate.
Alan Woodward, a computer scientist at the University of Surrey and an adviser to Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, says that Britain stacks up well in tackling online crime compared to other EU countries. But the nature of the internet makes tackling low-level, high-volume cybercrime difficult anywhere. Many perpetrators are based abroad.
Britain is working closely with foreign police forces and organisations such as Europol, although some are more keen to co-operate than others. But the police themselves have admitted that cybercrimes may receive a lesser response from officers unable to understand or properly investigate them. The lack of violence or obvious harm can make them seem less urgent. And directing greater police resources towards cybercrime diverts them away from other areas.
The question is how much time and money the police should devote to online fraud. Stealing cars is seen by many criminologists as a “debut crime”, the first step on a journey to more serious offences. Cybercrime does not appear to be, says Professor Wall. Fraudsters merely have to commit a greater number of minor frauds to make more money; more complex offences are unnecessary. Many of those willing to commit low-level crimes online would balk at doing so on the street.
In the meantime, individuals and companies will do more. Few expect every new spammer to be arrested, says Richard Clayton, a computer scientist at Cambridge University. Instead, each spam-blocking system tweaks itself to increase its success rate. No one in the wild west believed the sheriff would arrive each time someone stole a cow, he says. “Everyone had to look out for themselves.”
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