A Bridge Too Far

Looking back at the past year, it seems the security threats to businesses are only becoming more pervasive and more costly.

In two weeks' time, leaders of the global law-enforcement, finance and online business communities will assemble in London for the annual e-Crime Congress. In the 12 months since they were here last, we've seen the financial services industry under almost constant Trojan horse attack, denial of service attacks increase by 50 per cent and phishing and identity theft attempts approach eight million per day, according to security company Symantec.

For the first time in its history, the Congress will have Amazon, eBay, Skype and Yahoo! sharing the floor with the likes of Al-Rajhi, the largest Islamic bank in the Middle East; the FBI; Professor Ian Angell from the London School Economics; and senior police officers from South Korea and the People's Republic of China.

It promises to be a gathering that illustrates the global nature of a struggle to prevent serious and organised crime dominating the internet in much the same way as pirates threatened the ocean trade routes of the 17th century.

The evidence to date strongly suggests fighting e-crime remains low on the list of international government priorities, in contrast with the war against terrorism and efforts to combat the scourge of child pornography.

Law enforcement resources are stretched, often beyond breaking point and frequently are only as good as the strongest Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty that exists between G8 countries. As a result crime pays - and it pays very well indeed for highly organised, ruthless and efficient criminal gangs which are more than capable of manipulating both the intrinsic gaps in the technology and the strained relationships between nations at a very sensitive time in our history.

The extent of the damage e-criminals are causing was revealed to me at a recent Westminster briefing, where I heard reported figures for one high street bank's losses to phishing scams in the last 12 months. I'm not at liberty to reveal the exact number but it's so high it stretches my credulity.

In the UK, industry appears to be spending more than 15 per cent of its security budgets (and more than 50 per cent in some sectors such as financial services) to clamp down on e-crime. Meanwhile the police are spending 0.01 per cent of their overall budget on pure e-crime and the investigation of conventional crime which happens to involve the use of digital evidence.

This brings us to the question of 'beefing-up' the new Police and Justice Bill to increase penalties for what you and I will recognise as e-crime; hacking and denial of service are among them though the courts have struggled with them in the past.

Still, even with the relatively low odds of being caught, only a very desperate or audacious cyber criminal is going to domicile himself in the UK. Warmer climates with lots of cybercafés and little or no cyber-legislation are far more appealing to those with real ambition.

One growing trend observed since last year's e-Crime Congress is the number of attempts to steal personal information from very large databases. Most recently we've seen large international banks and credit card companies own up to losses of tens of thousands of personal card and identity records. Among them was the tax credit fraud fiasco that resulted from the theft of the identities and personal details of almost 13,000 staff at the Department for Work and Pensions and Network Rail.

Given government's efforts to railroad the identity card legislation through parliament as a universal solution for the identity theft problem, it's interesting to note that security on the Dutch ID card has broken already. Will our own be any more secure I wonder?

The delegates assembling for the e-Crime Congress in London this month will hope to hear of new strategies and solutions that can defeat the threat and lower the cost of dealing with organised online crime in all its forms. But this past year the fight, instead of being carried to the enemy in well-funded and united strength like the Normandy D-Day landings of 1944, still looks rather closer to the unhappy results of A Bridge too Far.