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Undercover policing isn’t the reserve of ‘real world’ law enforcement: covert cops in the West Midlands are active online in the hunt for cyber criminals.
Their remit to infiltrate crime gangs remains much the same.
But while agents on the ground are seeking exchanges of drugs or illegal firearms, the digital detectives monitor trades of computer attack software or tips from gloating hackers.
The West Midlands Regional Organised Crime Unit (ROCU) has a dedicated cyber-crime unit of specially-trained web investigators, analysts and intelligence experts.
In this interview, one of them − who has asked to remain anonymous − gives an insight into the world of a cyber cop…
Why have you asked to remain anonymous?
We investigate hackers and they would enjoy nothing more than to hack a serving cybercrime investigator. It would be a real feather in their cap.
Anyone involved in this area of law enforcement is advised to keep a low profile online. We restrict what information is available about us on the web.
The people we deal with hack, and attempt to hack, high profile individuals, famous people, or those who can be professionally embarrassed. Our investigations include targets linked to well-known hacking groups that do account takeovers, identity theft and other crimes.
OK, what can you tell us about yourself?
I’ve worked with the cybercrime team as a specialist investigator since October 2014 probing attacks involving malware, hacking, network intrusion and denial of service.
In total, I’ve been a police officer for 15 years having previously been a response officer − responding to emergency calls for help − neighbourhood policing in Birmingham and most recently CID.
At no point in my policing career did I see myself being fortunate enough to serve within cybercrime but with a background in investigation and a keen interest in technology, it’s a very enjoyable and exciting place to be working.
Where does your technology interest stem from?
I graduated in Computer Studies at university in 2001 and joined West Midlands Police the following year. I’ve always been keen to get involved in police projects involving new technology aimed at protecting the public or catching criminals.
Technology can offer key evidence in investigations: while working as a detective in CID I used GPS tag tracking and communications data from mobile phones to identify offenders in a series of burglaries.
We’re always looking at introducing new technology that can help us secure evidence against offenders… and that’s more important in the field of cybercrime than in perhaps any other area of policing.
What kind of training did you need for the role?
I’ve had extensive training including network investigation, data recovery techniques and forensic training regarding computers and mobile phones.
It’s always a discussion point over whether we should hire techie types, people who already have the IT skills and train them how to be an investigator, or to take on detectives and train them on the technical side.
Our view is that as the role is one of an online investigator, it’s more important to have the skills of a detective and to build the technology skills on top.
What kind of investigations are you involved with?
It’s difficult to go into too much detail on our network investigations − we don’t want to give offenders any inside information!
If a computer is infected or attacked we will try to establish is the offence was carried out through a network, maybe the internet or local network.
A lot of our investigations are linked to the Dark Web which is very challenging and technical to infiltrate.
What exactly is the Dark Web and what presence do cybercrime detectives have there?
It’s pretty technical… you can’t stumble across the Dark Web while casually browsing online!
To access the Dark Web you need a specific program that acts as a network of computers sharing access to the internet, making your internet browsing history essentially anonymous. People need a degree of specialist knowledge to access it and sites located within the Dark Web.
Cyber detectives are working undercover online on the hunt for offenders, perhaps posing as hackers or people interested in buying malicious malware software, on chat rooms and in forums. We’re looking for evidence of people linked to criminality just like police officers would in the real world.
Hackers like to boast. Often they’ll do it for the personal challenge, not financial gain, maliciousness or spite, but purely to see if they can do it.
And if they can they don’t want to keep it to themselves, they’ll want to discuss it in forums and do a bit of showing off. We want to be in a position to listen to that and gather evidence.
Have you been involved in any particularly significant cases?
We’ve got lots of ongoing investigations. A recently completed case involved the prosecution of a man who was supplying services to commit DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks against websites.
This web-based tool was used globally to conduct over 600,000 attacks on websites, putting them out action. The targets included the FBI and NASA, plus numerous companies in the UK.
Further similar investigations have been conducted which required international cooperation, and involved me attending meetings at Europol in The Hague.
One current investigation is a probe into someone who is socially engineering victims, stealing identities and phone numbers, and making blackmail demands.
*The cybercrime team is part of the Regional Organised Crime Unit based in Birmingham. It comprises officers from West Midlands, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and West Mercia forces who focus on bringing down organised crime networks*
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