NPCC leader: ‘Virtually every crime today has a digital footprint’

UK’s leading police officers tell Home Affairs Committee that two in three forces need more capability to deal with cybercrime


Three of the UK’s most senior officers have told a parliamentary committee that police forces and other law-enforcement agencies need more resources and new legal frameworks to operate in a world where most crimes rely on digital technology.

National Police Chiefs’ Council chair Sara Thornton, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, and Lynne Owen, director general of the National Crime Agency, all gave evidence to MPs on the Home Affairs Committee this week. Each was asked to pick an aspect of future policing about which they felt most confident, as well as the one that gave them the most concerns.

In the latter case, all three cited issues related to the challenges of policing the digital world.

Thornton said that a programme run by the NPCC last year had found “only about a third of forces had a proper capability to deal with cyber-dependent and cyber-enabled crime”. In response to this, the NPCC is working with the NCA to help establish cyber units that are housed within local constabularies, but whose remit is set at a regional level.

“It is not that we haven’t got a plan, we have got plans – but it is very much a work in progress,” Thornton added.

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Cyber-dependent crime relates to “computers [being] used to attack other computers”, she explained. This includes the likes of DDoS and malware attacks. Cyber-enabled crime, meanwhile, covers areas such as online fraud and other financial crime.

“Of course, the reality is, in terms of crime today, virtually every crime has a digital footprint, Thornton said. “And that is a challenge that every police force is facing.”

Owens of the NCA revealed that, since 2013, her organisation has seen an eightfold increase in the number of suspected illegal images being referred to the agency by private companies. Owens referred to the case of paedophile Matthew Falder – who used the dark web in committing 137 offences – as an example of how technology could both help criminals perpetrate crime, but also enable them to ultimately be caught.

“What we are not now doing is being able to build the capacity and the capability to stay ahead of the curve,” she said. “We need to be in a position where we can – as a whole system, not just as individual agencies – build capability, so we can understand and discover people like Matthew Falder, and get ahead of the curve.”

Owens added: “We would like to see investment in a new national assessment centre, in the same way that counter-terrorism has JTAC (the Joint Terrorism Assessment Centre) that makes an assessment of that [threat], we think we need an equivalent of that for serious and organised crime. And, from a law-enforcement perspective, we need to take a different approach to data, and sharing data. And, fundamentally, we think we need a different relationship with the private sector – with the social media and online companies. At the moment, they take all of the profit, but they take minimal risk. And we think there are some big asks of industry to prevent offences occurring in the first place.”

When asked to pick her biggest worry for the future of policing, Metropolitan Police commissioner Dick said that she was “deeply concerned about the exponential rises in digital data and the impact that that is having”. 

She pointed to facial recognition and artificial intelligence as two technologies whose pace of change is, at present, outstripping that of the people charged with creating and enforcing the applicable laws.

“There needs to be a great deal of quick and hard work about the ethical and legal issues that the data age poses to law enforcement,” she said. “There is a whole series of developments where things are moving very fast, and the ability of the law to keep up with that – and also for those who hold us to account… is a real challenge for us.”

Dick added: “When you are dealing with data – either within a crime, or our own sources of open-source data – the sheer volume, and the complexity, and the ethical and legal challenges, are enormous. I would hope that we would step up as, not just a law-enforcement community, but the wider police leadership and the Home Office in the future, to assist with speeding up the thinking on it. Because we keep getting criticised – but we are working in a vacuum to some extent.”

Sam Trendall

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