Out of the Shadows: Five Challenges facing the National Crime Agency

Billed by the media as the UK’s answer to the FBI, the National Crime Agency is launched today. The agency faces the herculean challenge of reducing organised crime in the UK and overseas with inadequate intelligence, a limited budget and a public who remains largely ignorant of the true scale of the threat.

Cyber-crime has become a major component of organised crime which, in itself, is dominating the agenda of law enforcement authorities. Last week saw the arrest of Ross William Ulbricht, the owner of the Silk Road website on counts of narcotics trafficking, computer hacking and money laundering. The 29 year old was arrested in San Francisco following a major undercover investigation by the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, and Homeland Security Investigations.

The Silk Road website, only accessible via the Tor network,[1] had become notorious among law enforcement and intelligence agencies as a sprawling black-market bazaar, where illegal drugs and other illicit goods and services were regularly bought and sold by the site’s users. At its peak the site was used by thousands of drug dealers and other unlawful vendors to distribute hundreds of kilograms of illegal drugs and other illicit goods and services to well over a hundred thousand buyers. The Silk Road site generated sales of over 9.5 millon Bitcoins (a peer-to-peer, electronic cash system) and collected commissions from these sales totalling over 600,000 Bitcoins. While the value of Bitcoins has varied during the site’s lifetime, the FBI believe the number of Bitcoins recovered was roughly equivalent to $1.2 Billion in sales and $80 million in commissions. Cyber crime and cyber-enabled crime is big business.

The Silk Road site was not just an American phenomenon. Vendors and users from the UK used the site on a regular basis and the problem of cyber crime and cyber-enabled crime is gradually overwhelming the police and intelligence agencies. Senior police officers suggest that cyber crime is now a typical volume crime (i.e., similar to street robbery and burglary). One estimate suggests that there were 44 million cyber attacks in 2011 in the UK. Adrian Leppard, Commissioner of the City of London Police, told a British parliamentary committee in the summer that ’the police were not winning the war on E-crime.’ 

The challenge is widely recognised in the UK and a number of initiatives are now underway. As part of the new National Crime Agency (NCA) which will goes ‘live’ today, a new National Cyber Crime Unit (NCCU) has been created. The NCCU brings together over 200 police officers and staff from the Police Central e-Crime Unit and Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) and will lead the UK’s response to cyber crime in the UK, while new cyber overseas liaison post are to be created in a bid to develop international partnerships.

If at First you Don't Succeed, (Try, Try, and Try Again)

National Crime Agency [thumbnail]Combating cyber crime is just one of a number of priorities for Keith Bristow, the new Director General of the National Crime Agency, who is overseeing the third substantial organisational change to how Britain fights organised crime in fifteen years. In the late 1990s the National Crime Squad and National Criminal Intelligence Service were created and then subsequently merged into the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) in 2006. But SOCA’s failings, weak accountability and limited impact on organised crime, made it an inevitable target for reform.

There is a new found determination in government to do something about organised crime, long seen (inside and outside government) as the poor relation to tackling the threat from international terrorism. The lack of leadership on organised crime  seems to have been solved with politicians across the political divide briefly united (led by an increasingly powerful Home Secretary), while responsibility for organised crime has been handed to the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism (OSCT) as part of the Permanent Secretary’s focus on ‘strategic threats’ to UK national security.

In preparation for the launch of the NCA, the Regional Organised Crime Units (ROCUs) have seen a welcome investment in order to help them develop specific capabilities, though not as much as is perhaps required to meet all of the challenges facing  either the region or UK. The ROCU core capabilities programme focuses on increasing the capacity and capabilities of: Regional Intelligence Units, Financial Investigation and Asset Recovery units, Fraud Investigation teams, cyber and e-crime units as well as the Government Agency Intelligence Network (GAIN). While this limited investment will address some of the issues facing the ROCUs there are five significant challenges in the UK’s response to organised crime worth focusing on.

The NCA’s Five Challenges in Fighting Organised Crime

The first and arguably the greatest challenge facing the NCA and the government’s broader response to organised crime is the scale and scope of the threat. There are, according to the Home Office’s own estimates, 5,500 organised crime groups (OCGs) comprising approximately 37,000 people, a similar size to the population of Dunstable in Bedfordshire (the town is close to where the Great Train Robbery took place). The 5,500 OCGs are engaged in a range of organised criminal activity including drugs, cyber and cyber enabled crime, fraud, money laundering, people trafficking and child sexual exploitation. How the NCA and ROCUs plan to identify the highest priority OCGs and thereby reduce the risk to national security and public safety remains an ongoing challenge for government.

The second challenge – and the Achilles heel of the government’s response to organised crime is the limited intelligence coverage. The challenge is two-fold. The government’s intelligence picture at the strategic level requires development, while tactical intelligence from investigations has not always been analysed effectively when organised crime groups have been disrupted limiting the ability of police forces to develop a rich picture of organised criminal activity in their area.

A central lesson of the Security Service’s (MI5) success in reducing the risk of international terrorism in the UK has been the investment in its intelligence capacity and technical capabilities. So a priority for the NCA will be investing in an intelligence hub – which must be the cornerstone of the government’s response to organised crime. The current situation is not solely the fault of the police or SOCA (though they must share in the blame). It is rather a reflection of the scale and complexity of organised crime which exists across the globe in multiple jurisdictions. Today, without a clear tasking process, a comprehensive intelligence picture and –more often than not – support from foreign governments, the outcome of any investigation will remain limited.

A third challenge is how the new governance arrangements will work given the new agency and significant changes to policing across the UK. With OSCT now responsible for organised crime, the Home Office may also introduce governance boards similar to the ones in place for the counter-terrorism strategy. While this may seem a bureaucratic accessory and not a priority the failure to respond to organised crime can partly be traced back to the lack of a comprehensive governance structure in the Home Office. In the past Ministers and senior officials were simply unable to grasp the enormity of the challenge they were facing and without a robust governance model failed to keep a close eye on strategic and operational matters. As such, organised crime was rarelygiven much of a priority in Home Affairs and was largely outsourced to the police and relevant agencies. 

Organised crime is not only a matter of national security. It has a major impact on communities. Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) will therefore play an important role any new governance regime. The Strategic Policing Requirement makes clear that Chief Constables and Police and Crime Commissioners must fulfil their respective forces’ national responsibilities by ensuring that sufficient capabilities are in place to respond to threats (such as terrorism and organised crime) in support of the work of national agencies such as the NCA.[2]

The fourth challenge is one the government must focus time and effort on, but accept the return on investment will be measured in years not months. Raising the public’s awareness of the threat of organised crime is central to the government’s strategy. Public awareness should be the number one priority in the Prevent workstream of the new organised crime strategy. Without the public on their side the government, NCA and local police forces cannot hope to reduce the number of organised crime groups and levels of organised criminality. They will also miss opportunities to prevent people from being drawn into organised crime in the first place.

The fifth and final challenge is and will remain funding. Unless there is an increase in the budget to tackle organised crime the government and NCA will not be able to meets its own objectives. This is understood in government but there is room for greater imagination in redistributing the Home Office’s budget in future years. A sober cost and benefits analysis should be conducted with a view to providing extra resources to tackle organised crime. A fresh strategy, a newly created agency and more determined leadership shows real intent. But only investing wisely in developing the capacity of the NCA and police forces will ultimately reduce the risk of organised crime.



[1]Tor software protects the user by bouncing their communications around a distributed network of relays run by volunteers all around the world, preventing anybody from watching your Internet connection and learning your physical location.


Charlie Edwards

Senior Research Fellow

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