Escaping the “black hole”: how to measure cybercrime

How big a threat is cybercrime to UK industry, and how do we deal with it?

The vast majority of parliamentary committee reports do not prompt headlines containing phrases like “losing the war”, “falling into a black hole”, and “a bigger threat than nuclear attack”. Last week’s Home Affairs Select Committee report on e-crime was a notable exception. For those who make a living fighting cyber-crime, however, the report held very little that would shock. Indeed, my colleague Art Coviello spoke at length to the Committee, and whilst he agreed with their assessment that we weren't winning the battle, he had considerable praise for the way both British business and government were coming together around the challenge.

Now the dust has settled somewhat, it’s worth separating reality from hyperbole, and perhaps considering what might actually be done about the problem. To do so, we should begin on a positive note. The headlines came about because the UK features so high on the list of targets for cyber criminals but, in some ways, this is as reassuring as it is a point of concern. The reason we're such a persistent target of attack is because we have so much worth stealing – financial assets, intellectual property and the type of vibrant dynamic business that generates both. We shouldn’t worry if criminals wish to steal from us, but we must work to limit their chances of success. So, what can we do to thwart the criminals? And how well are we doing currently?

The second question is easy to answer, and the answer is: not too badly. We may not be winning the war, but we’re not losing either – the "black hole" of the report is really a sort of jurisdictive black hole, and it’s unlikely to swallow the nation’s finances any time soon. That’s not, however, to deny the scale of the problem, and the question of how we solve it is undeniably complicated. The issue is a truly global one, and criminals have more weapons at their disposal than ever before.

Cyber-security professionals refer to the "attack surface" to describe how cyber-criminals access their victims and, in the space of the last ten years, this has changed beyond all recognition. When the internet was primarily a means of accessing information, the avenues through which cyber criminals could reach their victims were limited, and so was the extent of their potential gains. Now, with almost any product or service available online, with a plethora of different social networks, and with smartphones and many different devices connected to the internet, there are few limits to the means criminals can employ to steal from organisations and individuals.

No individual or organisation can hope to stand alone against this threat. Companies that wish to defend themselves have little alternative but to collaborate on their response to cyber-crime. The criminals themselves see the value of such a strategy, and their information-sharing networks are extraordinarily effective. At our subsidiary RSA, we maintain cyber-security watch posts around the world, and from these we see criminals exchanging data on the vulnerabilities that allow them to steal money and intellectual property from organisations and individuals.

This is a sophisticated and agile underground economy which feeds parasitically on legitimate commerce, and which lawful businesses cannot hope to curb without concerted action. However, even recent discourse on the issue has not sufficiently stressed the importance of collaboration. For example, the CBI’s otherwise very sensible response to the Committee’s report struck a false note in its suggestion we should be "fighting crime in private". That would be a lonely and unsuccessful fight, and it’s crucial that British businesses are aware of how numerous, how skilled, and how efficiently collaborative cyber-criminals are. No organisation could hope to combat them alone.

However, with a coherent framework for businesses to share information on cyber threats, businesses are well-placed to beat the cyber threat. Many business leaders may shy away from the idea of engaging with their competitors and peers in industry, but strong precedents have already been set in sectors at high risk of cybercrime. Financial services is one of these and, while companies in the industry are more protective of proprietary information than those in almost any other, the scale of the threat is such that a formal means of sharing intelligence is a necessity. In financial services, the eFraudNetwork cybercrime watch service allows companies worldwide to securely share information about cyber-crime, so that once one attempted theft is thwarted, the perpetrators cannot simply move on to try the same methods at another organisation.

Such a network is very effective in curbing fraud and theft, and the good news is that this kind of information sharing is not complex or expensive, and need not negatively impact on the competitive advantages or information privacy of the organisations involved. It is a model that could easily be replicated in other industries. Much work is already being done to achieve this; indeed, RSA will shortly release a cyber-threat intelligence model, which will propose a global industry standard framework for business-to-business information sharing. Last week’s Committee report implied that a political intervention is possible so, however it chooses to do so, the business community should act while it is still able to shape a response according to its own priorities. After all, if there’s one thing that we know about cyber criminals, it’s that they never stop working to improve the methods they use. As the lawless learn to attack more effectively, so the lawful must learn to defend better – and no one organisation can succeed in doing this alone.

James Petter is vice president and managing director of EMC UK&I

Photograph: Getty Images

James Petter is vice president and managing director of  internet services company EMC UK&I.

kerim44 at Wikimedia Commons
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Xenophobic graffiti at a London Polish centre is a dark sign of post-Brexit Britain

The centre's chairwoman says an incident of this kind has never happened before, and police are treating it as a hate crime. 

Early on Sunday morning, staff arriving at the Polish Social and Cultural (POSK) centre in west London's leafy Ravenscourt Park were met with a nasty shock: a xenophobic obscenity smeared across the front of the building in bright yellow paint. 

“It was a standard, unpleasant way of saying ‘go away’ – I'll leave that to your interpretation,” Joanna Mludzinska, chairwoman of the centre, says the next morning as news crews buzz around the centre’s foyer. The message was cleaned off as soon as the staff took photo evidence – “we didn’t want people to walk down and be confronted by it” – but the sting of an unprecedented attack on the centre hasn’t abated.

“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” Mludzinska tells me, shaking her head. “Never.”

The news comes as part of a wash of social media posts and police reports of xenophobic and racist attacks since Friday’s referendum result. It’s of course difficult to pin down the motivation for specific acts, but many of these reports feature Brits telling others to “leave” or “get out” – which strongly implies that they are linked to the public's decision on Friday to leave the European Union. 

Hammersmith and Fulham, the voting area where the centre is based, voted by a 40-point margin to remain in the UK, which meant the attack was particularly unexpected. “The police are treating this as a one-off, which we hope it is,” Mludzinska tells me. They are currently investigating the incident as a hate crime. 

“But we have anecdotal evidence of more personal things happening outside London. They’ve received messages calling them vermin, scum [in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire]. It’s very frightening.” As one local Polish woman told the Mirror, there are fears that the referendum has “let an evil genie out of a bottle”. 

For those unsure whether they will even be able to stay in Britain post-referendum, the attacks are particularly distressing, as they imply that the decision to leave was, in part, motivated by hatred of non-British citizens. 

Ironically, it is looking more and more likely that we might preserve free movement within the EU even if we leave it; Brexit campaigners including Boris Johnson are now claiming immigration and anti-European feeling were not a central part of the campaign. For those perpetrating the attacks, though, it's obvious that they were: “Clearly, these kind of people think all the foreigners should go tomorrow, end of,” Mludzinska says.

She believes politicians must make clear quickly that Europeans and other groups are welcome in the UK: “We need reassurance to the EU communities that they’re not going to be thrown out and they are welcome. That’s certainly my message to the Polish community – don’t feel that all English people are against you, it’s not the case.” 

When I note that the attack must have been very depressing, Mludzinska corrects me, gesturing at the vases of flowers dotted around the foyer: “It’s depressing, but also heartening. We’ve received lots and lots of messages and flowers from English people who are not afraid to say I’m sorry, I apologise that people are saying things like that. It’s a very British, very wonderful thing.”

Beyond Hammersmith

Labour MP Jess Phillips has submitted a parliamentary question on how many racist and xenophobic attacks took place this weekend, compared to the weekends preceding the result. Until this is answered, though, we only have anecdotal evidence of the rise of hate crime over the past few days. From social media and police reports, it seems clear that the abuse has been directed at Europeans and other minorities alike. 

Twitter users are sending out reports of incidents like those listed below under the hashtag #PostBrexitRacism:

Facebook users have also collated reports in an album titled Worrying Signs:

Police are currently investigating mutiple hate crime reports. If you see or experience anything like this yourself, you should report it to police (including the British Transport Police, who have a direct text number to report abuse, 61016) or the charity Stop Hate UK.

HOPE not hate, an advocacy group that campaigns against racism in elections, has released a statement on the upsurge of hatred” post-referendum, calling on the government to give reassurance to these communities and on police to bring the full force of the law” to bear against perpetrators.

The group notes that the referendum, cannot be a green light for racism and xenophobic attacks. Such an outpouring of hate is both despicable and wrong.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.