Northern Ireland's hidden £100m war with cyber crime

The UK-wide Johnston Press Investigations Unit today launches the first in what will be a series of features about the cyber crime threat '“ and what you can do to counter it...

Sunday, 23rd July 2017, 11:17 am
Updated Tuesday, 12th September 2017, 12:20 pm
Cyber crime is costing the Northern Ireland economy £100m per year.

Northern Ireland is sharing in a massively under-reported UK-wide cyber crime wave costing this province £100m per year, with one Belfast expert affirming that as few as 1% of offences may be resulting in prosecution, an investigation by the Johnston Press Investigations Unit can reveal.

From computer hijackings committed by children as young as 13 to con-men defrauding young professionals looking online for love, the PSNI has recently doubled its cyber budget in order to keep pace with the rising level of cyber offences.

The cost of cyber crime to the Northern Ireland economy is estimated to be £100m per year, the Criminal Justice Inspectorate of Northern Ireland (CJINI) has said.

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Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, Brendan McGuigan, says a functioning executive is critical to spearheading a pan-government response. Pic: Pacemaker

Overall reported fraud in Northern Ireland jumped by 37.7% in the past year – and 70% of all fraud in the province is now estimated to be cyber-related.

The PSNI has also revealed that 75% of major cyber crime in Northern Ireland is being committed by children aged 14 up to 17.

Brendan McGuigan, Chief Inspector of the CJINI, which recently led a comprehensive investigation into cyber crime, said that “the vast majority of cyber crime currently goes unreported”.

He agreed that the PSNI is ahead of all UK police forces on cyber crime – except the Metropolitan Police – but still concluded that a comprehensive analysis of cyber crime by the PSNI is critical to meet the level of concerns he encountered.

Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, Brendan McGuigan, says a functioning executive is critical to spearheading a pan-government response. Pic: Pacemaker

“That is why we made the final recommendation that cyber crime strategy really needs to go beyond the police and needs to be pan-government, across departments,” he said. “It is too big for one organisation.”

The PSNI-led Organised Crime Task Force moved to take the lead, but must be backed by a functioning Stormont executive, he added.

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About 75 per cent of major cyber crime in NI is by children

Despite long-standing evidence that much of the cyber threat to the UK stems from organised crime syndicates in Russian-speaking countries, law enforcement officials say the ability to launch attacks is “increasingly global” and British criminals have built closer links to the “elite level of cyber crime” than previously thought.

Fraud is now estimated to cost the British economy as much as £193bn a year - significantly more than the £122bn annual cost of the NHS – with 70% of those offences enabled by computer.

An ex-intelligence officer at GCHQ, which leads Britain’s cyber defence capabilities, told Johnston Press 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 with attacks such as that which disrupted the NHS in May.

Lagan Valley DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson is a member of Parliament’s Privy Council, which is briefed on UK national security and cyber threats.

“The threat to the UK from both cyber crime and cyber terrorism is recognised by the UK Government as an absolute priority in terms of our national security strategy,” he said. “This threat is regularly discussed at ministerial and Privy Council level and it is vital that the police and armed forces are equipped and resourced...

“Without such a prioritisation, the UK will be very vulnerable to such attacks and this could have disastrous consequences for our economy given our reliance on electronic systems in places like the city of London.”

A key development in the last 12 months has been the increase in so-called “as-a-service” online attacks whereby offenders ranging from mafia-style crime syndicates to teenagers wanting to disrupt their schools can commission an off-the-shelf cyber attack without needing technical knowledge.

Johnston Press Investigations has been told of one incident where a 14-year-old in north west England paid £10 on the ‘dark web’ to commission disruption to his school’s internet portal, simply to avoid doing homework.

While the police forces which responded to Freedom of Information requests said they had received just under 40,000 reports of cyber crime in the last financial year, the Office of National Statistics estimates that there were 1.9 million victims of computer misuse offences in England and Wales in the past year.

This suggests that as little as 2% of online crimes are being reported, with victims often too embarrassed or worried about reputational damage to come forward, or even simply unaware that they have been targeted.

David Crozier is Head of Strategic Partnerships & Engagement at the Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT) at Queen’s University Belfast - an accredited centre of excellence with the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), part of the government’s GCHQ electronic intelligence centre.

He said it could be fair to believe that, across the UK, no more than 1% of cyber crime is therefore resulting in prosecution.

“It probably is a fair estimate,” he said. “Cyber crime is multi-jurisdictional. Trying to prosecute these types of crimes globally is very resource intensive so to a certain extent law enforcement have to be selective about the crimes that they go after because they only have a finite resource. Also the encryption technologies and masking on the dark web make it particularly difficult to prosecute.”

• Have you a cyber crime story to tell? contact us at [email protected] - more installments of the Cyber Crime series next week.