Monday, January 4, 2010

Anti-Cyber Crime Efforts - - How Technology Can Help to Trap Cyber Cowboys??

ANDY SMART visits the police headquarters where officers use state-of-the-art equipment to track down paedophiles, fraudsters and other criminals who abuse the latest technologies to enable their crimes.

THE High Tech Crime Unit, based in Mansfield, doesn't have a trophy cabinet for all its successes.

For one thing, there wouldn't be room in the small pair of offices it occupies in a corner of the aptly named Holmes House.

For another, they don't reward successful investigations with cups and medals.

The unit measures its triumphs in headlines – and the file on villains, trapped by digital evidence, is now about an inch thick.

The fate of child pornographers, paedophiles, fraudsters and internet vandals, brought to justice by the dedicated Notts police squad, has been captured in bold, tabloid headlines which sit in the desk of team leader Detective Sergeant Harry Parsonage.

One mind-boggling story catches my eye and gives a hint to the complex work undertaken by the unit.

An angry young man in Doncaster decided to use his computer skills to take revenge on the Nottingham company which sacked him.

"It was the first case of worldwide SMS spamming," said Sgt Parsonage.

"He sent out a text to 36,000 users which said they had won a car, please telephone this number."

But, by hacking into an SMS gateway in New York, the super-nerd was able to trick callers into contacting his old employer – and he brought their switchboard crashing to a halt.

"They were jammed up for a week and lost thousands of pounds in business."

But by delving into the maze of his computer traffic, Harry Parsonage and his team were able to follow the hacker's trail and help bring him to justice.

"He got sent to jail," said the officer, with quiet satisfaction.

Sadly, too many of the unit's investigations fall into a very different category, involving children.

"Around 50-60% of our work involves indecent images. It certainly affects your view of life and interaction with children, even your own children.

"It is quite surprising what you will find. If you can imagine it, you can find it – it is as stark as that."

For that reason, Sgt Parsonage and his team of two detective constables, two civilian examiners and a technician receive mandatory counselling.

It wasn't like that when the Notts force first began targeting computers for evidence of crimes committed back in 1995.


"That was when we first began examining computers with one man attached to the Fraud Squad. It was generally business-related and so the Fraud Squad was the natural place for computer skills.

"That first year, just 12 jobs were submitted in Notts – we are currently at 198 for 2009."

It all sounds so simple. Computers are brought into Holmes House for examination. The unit copies the hard drive but leaves the original untouched. Then the team tease out every vestige of information that has been stored up, searching for vital signs of crime.

"The amount of work is continually growing, becoming more and more complex because there are more and more devices with a digital element – mobile phones, cars, even fridges. Every sort of crime can have a computer element to it – even murder."

The explosion in social networking has simply added to the permutations.

"We look for anyone who has been communicating illegally – via e-mail, Facebook or YouTube. They are traced, arrested and then we can examine their computers," he said.

The recent case of nursery nurse Vanessa George, who transmitted indecent images of children via her mobile telephone to strangers she met on Facebook, including Bulwell woman Angela Allen, was a high-profile example of the work undertaken in Mansfield.

"I don't think people think about the possibility they are leaving such a trail," he said.

Before long, the unit will outgrow its two-room base, jam-packed with sophisticated equipment.

The power, capacity and range of modern computers is constantly increasing and with it the pressure on the unit.

"We face a constant need to keep up to date because every day there is a new piece of software and, for every change, we have to work out what the consequences are."

But all this new technology has to be allied to good old-fashioned police work and a case from 2002 highlights the point.

Greater Manchester police became aware of a series of images circulating on the internet. They depicted the serious sexual and physical abuse of a young girl and officers said they were among the worst they had ever seen.

In the background of a photograph they could see a particular make of computer and a particular printer and they were able to identify the type of camera that had been used.

"It was discovered that only seven people in the UK had that combination – two of them were in Notts," said Sgt Parsonage.

An elderly resident was quickly dismissed from the inquiry but not David Randle from West Bridgford. He had abused a girl then posted her suffering on the web for perverts to look at across the world.

Notts police, working with Greater Manchester detectives, used groundbreaking techniques to trace images transmitted from Randle's home.

They consulted experts including an architect who looked at the design of the property — and even the wallpaper — in order to track down the house from thousands.

Police used images Randle had posted on the internet, from his collection of 110,000 photographs, to pinpoint items in the room where the abuse took place.

Aspects of Randle's computer and printer made it almost unique. Notts police also asked Interpol to help trace the victim's school uniform and discovered it was British-made. The investigation brought down an international paedophile ring and led to arrests across Europe. Randle was jailed for life.

"We did the forensics," said Sgt Parsonage.

It was a complex investigation requiring diligence and sophisticated technology and, he said, spelt out a warning to anyone involved in computer misuse.

"In recent years there has been a great increase in software privacy tools for covering your tracks and, to some degree, they work.

"But," he added, "it is extremely difficult to get rid of all traces of your activity."

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