With a trace

Work has begun on police-backed research which could help significantly improve the way forces throughout the country deal with internet crime.

Oct 20, 2005
Andy Marsh

Work has begun on police-backed research which could help significantly improve the way forces throughout the country deal with internet crime.

A team at the University of Teesside, supported by Humberside Police, is trying to develop ways to help officers track down organised criminals behind lucrative rackets such as child pornography, money laundering, drug dealing, fraud and identity theft.

The Middlesbrough-based team’s work is based on the idea that all on-line use leaves a trace that can be used to detect unusual activity in its earliest stages.

Leading the 12-month £70,000 project, which is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and also involves the universities of Hull and Sheffield, the Home Office and the DTI, is Angus Marshall.

A senior lecturer in forensic science at the University of Teesside, who specialises in digital evidence, he said: “At the moment, we have to wait for the activity to become a noticeable problem, often after it has caused major damage to companies and the economy. By bringing together a team with expertise in forensic science, digital evidence, internet technologies and criminology, we believe that we can take a new approach to assessing and identifying unwanted internet activity.

“We may even go as far as identifying internet abusers early enough in their career, so that they can be stopped before they become a major problem.

“We are running a pilot feasibility study to see how much data we can capture without having to invent new technology. We want to establish where that information is coming from, how it is being spread and how criminal careers are developing.”

One angle the team is investigating is the way serious organised criminals attempt to confuse investigators by exploiting unwitting ‘script kiddies’, the young hackers and virus writers who tend to operate more for fun than for criminal gain.

Over recent years, there have been a number of high-profile cases of computer networks being crippled by their work and Mr Marshall said: “If you move up the scale of crimes, you have the likes of drugs and child pornography. It is big business and we believe organised criminals are putting data out there for the script kiddies to find and use. We think organised crime is doing that to create background noise which masks their own activities, such as money laundering and child pornography.”

His team is dedicated to allowing such tactics to be detected and dealt with by computer specialists.

He said: “What we want to achieve ultimately with our work is to create a crime prevention system, rather than a crime detection system, by detecting patterns of criminal activity. The message we want to put out is that this activity will be spotted and will be dealt with early. What we are working towards is spotting emerging trends so that they can be isolated early. Then we can send in the equivalant of a SWAT team to deal with it.”

One of the pieces of research involves student Martin Zeus-Brown, who has been investigating ways of detecting unusual activity in servers. He said: “We want to detect the incidents before they happen.”

Aware that web-based crime remains a somewhat nebulous concept to some officers, Mr Marshall uses the following analogy: “It is like seeing an empty building, then fourteen people go into it over a short period of time when it has been empty for a year. You know something is happening.”

David Maxwell, another research student, has been investigating Phishing, the method of sending emails purporting to be from banks and building societies asking for personal details, including account numbers. In July this year alone, there were 14,135 cases worldwide, a 203% rise since October last year, and 5% were successful. His work has looked at ways in which this can be combated, including spotting emerging trends; for instance, gangs are now changing tactics asking not for money or bank details but trying to weedle out personal information in order to submit loan applications in people‘s names.

And students L

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