Daily Archives: 2007-02-11

SOCA: we just want your money?

Just over a year ago I wrote about the, then upcoming, Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), reporting that their aim in tackling “level 3” crime was to be “mysterious and menacing“. I pointed out how they were going to be absorbing the National High Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) and that this would leave a large gap, in that there would apparently be no police organisation dealing with “level 2” eCrime — crime which is not local to a single police force area, but that is not sufficiently serious or organised to be dealt with by SOCA.

In fact, I’ve since learnt that the inability to deal with level 2 criminality is not just an eCrime issue. In 2005 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) published “Closing the Gap – Review of the ‘Fitness for Purpose’ of the Current Structure of Policing in England and Wales“, which found that the failure to deal with “level 2” criminality was an issue across a very wide range of different crimes (the whole report makes its points without once mentioning eCrime or the Internet). This led to the, now abandoned, proposals to compulsorily merge 43 police forces into 17 larger units. No further generic policy initiative appears to be forthcoming.

However, as I wrote in October, there is some thought going into eCrime and the current proposal is “mainstreaming“, viz: not treating it as anything special.

Additionally, the Met Police have been floating the idea of an national coordination centre for eCrime reports, as hinted at in this January 2007 Met eCrime progress report to the Metropolitan Police Authority. Current indications are that the Home Office may have problems coming up with the money to fund the centre, although SCDEA e-Crime, the equivalent unit in Scotland, is funded by the Scottish Executive. Perhaps more about progress south of the border will come to light in March, when Commander Sue Wilkinson, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) lead on eCrime testifies before a House of Lords Select Committee.

But, I’m digressing, so back to SOCA

Last month I, and a couple of other eCrime policy opinion formers (!), were invited down to Docklands for the proverbial “free lunch” and several hours of presentations on what SOCA is doing about “level 3” criminality. It’s a little tricky to report on the detail, because they asked us to treat some of the material in confidence. However, two clear messages stood out:

The first is that the absorbed NHTCU is now significantly bigger, significantly better resourced, and with the hiving off of “child abuse image” issues to CEOP, is not being forever distracted into chasing down individual paedophiles (if there’s one child at risk, or an 420-million dollar bank hack to investigate, the former tended to get all the resource). This is basically a Good Thing, so far as it goes.

The second message is that SOCA is a “harm reduction agency” and is not just concentrating on detective work and prosecutions. They are also looking at a whole range of other interventions, from offender management (serious, organised criminals have a very high recidivism rate) through diligent application of the Proceeds of Crime legislation, to working with industry to harden systems against criminal opportunities.

They have a Bill before parliament at present (the Serious Crime Bill) which will give them sweeping new powers to create “gangster-ASBOs” to restrict the lives of convicted organised criminals, and will permit the wholesale swapping of data for the prevention of fraud, without infringement of the Data Protection Act. The Bill also reworks the framework for “inchoate” offences, viz: incitement to commit crimes or assisting with them — of which perhaps more on another occasion, since poor wording for the offences could make many security research activities problematic.

Looking back, it is this strong emphasis on SOCA’s approach to ensuring “crime doesn’t pay” that remains with me most strongly. This isn’t just the approach of locking Al Capone up for tax evasion because nothing else could be made to stick (though Capone actually served time for several other offences). This is all about SOCA developing an effective way of stripping criminals of their ill-gotten gains.

I’m reminded of Sir Alan Sugar giving a lecture about management way back in the 1980’s. He was mocking the catch-phrase/mission-statement culture, memorably saying, “‘Pan Am takes good care of you’, ‘Marks and Spencer loves you’, ‘Securicor cares’ . . . at Amstrad, ‘We just want your money’“. Twenty years on, that seems a rather apt phrase for a significant slice of SOCA’s activities.