UK calls in the iPlods to tackle hi-tech crime

Criminals who commit offences online are to be banned from the web and a new police unit will be set up to protect Britain from hackers and terrorists, as part of a cyber crime security strategy announced by Ministers.

Judges will be encouraged to make more use of powers which prevent criminals and online bullies from using social networking websites and instant messaging services.

A police Cyber Crime Unit should be up and running by 2013 as part of the new National Crime Agency, which will replace the soon-to-be-scrapped Serious and Organised Crime Agency.

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Hundreds of civilian internet experts, already being nicknamed “iPlods”, will be recruited to become special constables and work alongside police forces across the country.

Another new unit will be created within the Ministry of Defence, which will be responsible for bolstering the UK’s military capabilities in cyberspace.

In a controversial move, the GCHQ eavesdropping centre in Cheltenham will be allowed to sell its skills and technology to private firms to help to strengthen online security – but only expertise that is not considered top secret will be offered.

The proposals form part of a four-year £650m strategy to protect the country from growing cyber threats, set out yesterday by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude.

Last year the Government classed cyber security as one of Britain’s main defence priorities, alongside terrorism, international military crises and natural disasters.

Concerns have been raised about sophisticated attacks against key infrastructure seemingly mounted by states such as China and Russia.

Online crime, including intellectual property theft such as music or film piracy, is estimated to cost the UK economy billions of pounds a year.

Mr Maude said: “The growth of the internet has transformed our everyday lives. But with greater openness, interconnection and dependency comes greater vulnerability.

“The threat to our national security from cyber attacks is real and growing.

“Organised criminals, terrorists, hostile states, and hacktivists are all seeking to exploit cyberspace to their own ends.”

A new Defence Cyber Operations Group will develop “military cyber capabilities” for countering threats. It is understood it will also consider “proactive” responses, which could include retaliation in kind. The unit will look at drafting in reservists with specialist knowledge and skills.

About six per cent of national income is currently enabled by the internet, and this proportion is expected to grow, said Mr Maude.

“We must take steps to preserve this growth,” he added, “by tackling cyber-crime and bolstering our defences, to ensure that confidence in the internet as a way of communicating and transacting remains.

“The Government cannot tackle this challenge alone. The private sector – which owns, maintains and creates most of the very spaces we are seeking to defend – has a crucial role to play too.

“The strategy heralds a new era of unprecedented cooperation between the Government and industry on cyber security, working hand in hand to make the UK one of the most secure places in the world to do business.”

Selling GCHQ’s specialist technology to private firms is one of the more contentious proposals.

The document says GCHQ’s “world-class expertise in cyber security” should be used to benefit economic growth. It will explore working “with private sector partners to explore the potential commercial applications”.

A government-sponsored venture capital model could also be set up to help fund innovation in cyber security in small and medium-sized businesses. However, the strategy stresses that none of the activities will “compromise the agency’s core security and intelligence mission”.

Officials are understood to have in mind instances where GCHQ has come up with cutting-edge technology, such as encryption systems, decades before it has emerged commercially.

The organisation has been barred from exploiting its innovations even when they no longer need to be secret.

Cyber security “hubs” based around certain industries are to be set up to allow Government experts and firms to exchange information.

A pilot is due to begin next month for five business sectors – defence, telecoms, finance, pharmaceuticals and energy.

Ministers also want to encourage British businesses to achieve a competitive edge by promoting themselves as “certifiably cyber secure”.