Cyber criminals have helped to facilitate child prostitution, hundreds of obscene publications, slavery and blackmail in Northamptonshire over the past three years a major study has found – but the force is spending less than one per cent of its budget tackling the new breed of criminal.
Freedom of Information requests by Johnston Press Investigations and the Chronicle and Echo have revealed that officers in the county have investigated 720 cyber, or what are termed ‘cyber enabled’, crimes over the past three years.
The number subject to a police probe has risen steadily from 92 in 2014/15 to 365 in 2016/17.
Of the 720 investigated, 96 remained unsolved after a police probe and in 177 cases no suspect was identified. In four cases cautions had to be handed out to youths under that age of 18.
Yet the force is spending £755,049, just 0.6 per cent, of its overall budget on tackling cyber crime each year.
A former intelligence officer at GCHQ, which leads Britain’s cyber defence capabilities, told JP Investigations that the UK and other developed countries are “on the losing end of an arms race” in which organised crime groups and hostile states are deploying powerful online tools to net million of pounds a day and disrupt daily life with attacks such as the ransomware assault which earlier this year disrupted the NHS.
Our figures show that over the past three years in Northamptonshire there were 68 cases where cyber technologies enabled blackmail, six cases where it facilitated child prostitution or pornography and one case of slavery.
Police investigated 87 occasions where new technologies helped play a part in sexual activity with a child under 16 - and 50 occasions involving a child under 13.
Most of the crimes, 218 in fact, related to obscene publications that were either offensive to a person or explicit in some way.
But the list shows technology even played the part in six instances of rape.
The findings follow warnings made only last month by Britain’s public spending watchdog that online fraud has been “overlooked by government, law enforcement and industry”.
The National Audit Office found that only one in every 150 police officers in England and Wales specialises in fraud despite the fact it is now the most prevalent crime in Britain, with the vast majority of those offences committed online.
Former Northampton South MP Brian Binley was on a select committee looking at the growing nature of cyber crime in 2001 and believes forces up and down the land are facing a huge challenge.
In 2009 he was hit by cyber criminals himself when a hacker managed to take £1,000 from his account ‘without any checks whatsoever’ and was later the subject of an attempted attack, when fraudsters tried to move £9,000 from one of his savings accounts.
“It makes you so angry,” he said.
“I have never had house broken into but I imagine it is the same feeling.
“It is a violation of a part of you. It is a personal invasion.”
Northampton is no stranger to major cyber crime.
A Northampton student was jailed for 18 months for launching a series of cyber attacks that cost the website PayPal £3.5 million.
Christopher Weatherhead, carried out the attacks as part of hacking group Anonymous, which also targeted other sites including MasterCard, Visa and Ministry of Sound. The
Government itself has acknowledged that some police forces are doing too little to tackle cyber crime, with one minister citing the Game of Thrones TV series by warning “winter is coming” concerning online crime and fraud.
Security minister Ben Wallace called on victims of cyber crime to report offences but revealed seven police forces have no dedicated fraud or cyber crime unit.
Mr Wallace said: “This thing is only going to go one way, it is growing and the barriers to entry for cyber fraud are lowering on an almost daily basis.”
Data obtained by the investigation unit suggests that the true scale of the suffering is vastly under-reported.
While the police forces which responded to FOI requests said they had received just under 40,000 reports of cyber crime in the last financial year, the Office of National Statistics estimates there were 1.9 million victims of computer misuse offences in England and Wales in the past year.
This suggests that as little as two per cent of online crimes are being reported, with victims often too embarrassed or worried about reputational damage to come forward, or even unaware that they have been targeted.
Based on responses from 30 out of 45 police forces across the UK, the number of cyber crimes rose from 21,307 in 2015/16 to 39,339 in 2016/17, an increase of 86 per cent.
Yet the average spend on cyber crime across nine forces which provided figures on their budget was just one per cent.
Despite it spending just 0.06 per cent of its budget on tackling cyber crime, Northamptonshire Police says its dedicated cyber crime unit has been the subject of significant investment.
Detective Inspector Hayley Costar of the force cyber crime unit, said: “Alongside colleagues across the UK, we recognise that tackling cyber crime is an area of huge growth for policing, which is why it is identified within the police and crime plan as an area for us to focus on.
“Not only do we have a cyber crime team investigating crime committed online, we have a separate Paedophile Online Investigation Team (POLIT) as well as officers in every department investigating crimes which have an online element, including CID and response officers.”
Director of technology and digital transformation at the force Simon Clifford added: “We fully recognise the growth and complexity of this emerging type of threat. Not only have we provided additional funding to Northamptonshire Police to increase its capacity[...]but we in Northamptonshire are working at the forefront of a number of national technology programmes[...] to develop powerful cyber investigative and preventative tools.”