Real lives, real crimes: A study of digital crime and policing

Chapter 1. Introduction, background and digital crime


1.1. This report is intended to help HMIC better to understand the effect that digital technology is having on crime and policing. We hope that, in turn, it will help chief constables and the College of Policing to provide guidance and good practice to forces so that the victims of these crimes get the best possible service.

1.2. We have worked to the following terms of reference:

“Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) should undertake a thematic study in order to develop HMIC’s understanding of the effect of digital technology on crime and policing. The study will be conducted for the purpose of informing future HMIC inspections of police forces and law enforcement agencies. HMIC will work with: the College of Policing; the Home Office and police forces in order to achieve a comprehensive understanding.”

1.3. We visited six police forces between 19 January and 27 February 2015. We worked closely with non-governmental organisations which represent victims of crime and we have been supported by a group of critical readers and members of various advisory bodies. Uniquely, we worked with Uscreates, a private sector company, to undertake in-depth interviews with victims of digital crime so that their stories may be told in our report. We are grateful to all those who gave of their time freely to help us.

1.4. Those who commit digital crime create victims. Those victims demand and deserve the support and help of the police, as much as any other victim of crime. We have set out in this study the accounts of some victims to highlight the personal impact that digital crime has had upon them. Digital crime is not a lesser crime; it is as pernicious and disruptive as any other and merits an equal response.


1.5. In 2013, 36 million adults (73 percent) in Great Britain accessed the internet every day, 20 million more than in 2006 when directly comparable records began. The percentage of people who use a mobile phone to access the internet has more than doubled between 2010 and 2013, from 24 percent to 53 percent. (See ‘Internet Access – Households and Individuals, statistical bulletin, Office for National Statistics, August 2013’ – page 1)

1.6. This rise in use is particularly driven by young people. The 2013 annual report of the independent regulator and competition authority for the United Kingdom communications industries reported that 91 percent of children live in a household with internet access. In 2013, children aged 5-7 years spent, on average, 6.7 hours each week online; children aged 8-11 years, 9.2 hours; and children aged between 12 and 15 years, 17 hours.

1.7. Further, in 2013, the Office for National Statistics reported that those aged between 16 and 25 years were most likely to participate in online activities that focused on leisure and recreation, such as social networking (93 percent), downloading software (55 percent) and telephoning or making video calls over the internet via a webcam (40 percent). (See ‘Internet Access – Households and Individuals, statistical bulletin, Office for National Statistics, August 2013’ – Page 4)

1.8. But at the centre of what makes the internet and technological devices such powerful tools for good, lies their potential to be used for bad.

1.9. For the police, the task of investigating and apprehending offenders is made substantially more difficult if they need not set foot inside the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom at any time during the preparation for, and execution of, the crime.

1.10. Anonymity and activity beyond the jurisdiction are a potent mix to help the would-be offender.

Digital crime

1.11. People use different terminology to describe this area of crime. In our view, it is essential that a common language is adopted so that we may all understand what it is we are considering. In June 2014, national policing leads, practitioners and policy makers developed four definitions which we adopt throughout this study. We set them out verbatim:

  • “Digital footprint: that is, the trail of data that is left behind by users of digital services. In an investigative context, this typically relates to mobile and online communications, travel and financial transactions by offenders and victims.
  • “Internet-facilitated crime: where the internet and smartphones are used in planning or committing traditional criminal or terrorist activity. This ranges from online abuse as part of a neighbourhood dispute to communications between terrorists planning attacks.
  • “Cyber-enabled crimes: such as fraud, the purchasing of illegal drugs or firearms and child sexual exploitation which can be conducted on or offline, but online may take place at unprecedented scale and speed. This might include terrorism, for example, where cyber-enabled fraud is used to fund terrorist activities.
  • “Cyber-dependent crimes: which can only be committed using computers, computer networks or other forms of information communication technology. They include the creation and spread of malware for financial gain, hacking to steal important personal or industry data and denial of service attacks to cause reputational damage for criminal purposes or terrorism.” (Report on operationalising the Digital Intelligence and Investigation Capabilities Framework – Improving the intelligence and investigative response to an evolving digital environment, College of Policing, July 2014, page 6.)

1.12. We have adopted the term ‘digital crime’ to encompass all the above definitions.

An important general point

1.13. Modern technology is an integral part of people’s lives. The police service must respond accordingly. Almost any crime is now capable of involving modern technology, be it in organising its commission through e-mail or social media messages between conspirators, using technology itself to perpetrate the offence, or taking a picture of the aftermath of the crime, such as photographing an assault victim as he or she lies injured in the street with a view to sharing it online.

1.14. As such, it is no longer appropriate, even if it ever were, for the police service to consider the investigation of digital crime to be the preserve of those with specialist knowledge.

1.15. The public has the right to demand swift action and good quality advice about how best to deal with those who commit digital crime from every officer with whom they come into contact – from the first point of contact to an experienced detective.

1.16. It is for the police service at large to recognise that dealing with victims of digital crime is now commonplace. Treating such crime as ‘specialist’ or requiring expertise that is provided only by the few is outdated, inappropriate, and wrong. Every officer must be equipped to provide victims of digital crime with the help and support that they have a right to expect from those charged with the duty to protect them.

1.17. In due course, as part of our all-force inspection programme, we will assess the local response to digital crime and how each force is progressing. This report will enable HMIC and those who lead our police forces better to understand what needs to be done to ensure that they respond effectively to digital crime and provide the best possible advice, support, and service to its victims.

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