Less than 1% of computer hacking offences resulted in prosecution in 2019

Of the 17,600 offences recorded in the UK, just 57 were able to be tried under the Computer Misuse Act, report finds

A man in handcuffs standing in front of computer equipment in a darkened room

Of 17,600 reported cases of hacking in the UK only 57 led to prosecution in 2019, according to a new report.

The numbers signify a 12% drop in convictions compared to 65 successful prosecutions the year before, according to legal firm RPC, which said police forces lack the resources to fully investigate all aspects of cyber crime.

Government resources are instead being focused on large scale cyber attacks that are deemed a threat to national security, the firm suggested. As such, small, more niche hacking cases have proved elusive for the UK's police and judicial system.

"Tracking down cybercriminals is a very resource-intensive task," said Richard Breavington, partner at RPC. "Hackers know how to cover their tracks, and doing so is relatively straightforward. Cyber criminals view hacking as a low-risk activity, with virtually zero risk of prosecution."

RPC said that the majority of hacking offences reported in the UK are most likely carried out overseas, making it difficult to identify and pursue attackers who can route attacks through other jurisdictions where co-operation between law enforcement agencies is not always guaranteed.

The results for prosecutions in 2019 will be a concern for the UK government, particularly as the pandemic has seen a rise in smaller hacking scams, such as relatively unsophisticated phishing campaigns.

The RPC report found that only an "extremely small proportion" of the 17,600 cases were able to be tried under the Computer Misuse Act. The legislation was first enshrined in 1990 and, despite regular updates to keep it in line with rapidly advancing digital technologies, many have argued the act provides a confusing framework with ambiguous terminology.

In June, an alliance of businesses and trade groups petitioned the government to scrap the law, largely due to a clause that forces cyber security researchers to seek consent from those they investigate before accessing their systems, effectively preventing work against active criminals.

However, Jake Moore, Eset security specialist and former cyber security advisor for Dorset Police, told IT Pro that more resources for the police and better collaboration with universities and businesses with higher digital skill sets would be a better use of time over ammending legislation.

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"It's all well and good stating what is illegal in a misuse act but criminal hackers tend to be fully aware of the law," Moore said. "It's just they chose to carry on regardless in the knowledge of being capable of evading capture."

He argues that hackers are fully aware of the techniques to cover their tracks and evade capture, often making offences largely risk free.

"The labour-intensive nature of a cyber investigation often means that conviction is not possible," he added. "The amount of evidence requested to put criminal hackers behind bars is usually impossible to even locate let alone locating the offender in the first place. This decrease in prosecutions is likely to continue whilst policing remains in its current state."

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