A national centre of excellence is to be established by Police Scotland as part of a new strategy to combat the rising tide of cybercrime.

Fifty specially trained officers and staff will boost an existing workforce of around 100 as the force responds to an upsurge of online crime, exacerbated by the COVID-19 global pandemic.

The force – which unveils its new national cyber strategy this week – has recorded an uptick of digitally-enabled crimes during lockdown, particularly for child sexual abuse.

New figures released by the force recorded a higher number of online child sexual abuse crimes in June 2020 than in any other month on record. There were 530 online child abuse crimes recorded between April and June, with 226 in June alone. This is an increase of 21% against the same period last year and 34% higher than the five year average.

The force’s Cyber Strategy 2020 outlines how the service will adapt to the changing nature of crime and ‘recognises the need to provide reassurance, education and enforcement in public, private and digital spaces as the environment we live and work in evolves rapidly.’

Keeping People Safe in the Digital World, to be presented to the Scottish Police Authority on Wednesday, outlines the plan to tackle the threat, risk and harm from digitally-enabled crimes, particularly online child sexual abuse, fraud and the sharing of indecent images. It also sets out steps to tackle the threat to individuals, businesses and public sector organisations from cyber-attacks and other online crime.

Deputy Chief Constable Malcolm Graham, lead for Crime and Operational Support, said: “The nature of crime is changing and Police Scotland needs to change with it. The online space is becoming a bigger part of the frontline of policing every day.

“As well as keeping people safe on the streets, our officers and staff are keeping children safe on their computers and smartphones in every community in Scotland. While cybercrimes are underreported, we know we are stopping vulnerable people from being defrauded and adapting our techniques in response to criminals who are doing the same.

“These officers may not be visible. They may not be patrolling in cars, but the work they do is just as important, and the threats they are dealing with are on the rise.

“The rapid increase in online abuse and exploitation of vulnerable people and children, either for financial gain or for sexual purposes, underlines the need for change.

“The centre will provide the necessary increased support for the increasing cyber inquiries, investigation and prevention work. This will allow us to deliver support, training and guidance to Local Policing officers, giving them the tools to address the number of concerns raised daily. The additional officers will expand our existing capacity in cybercrime intelligence, investigations, research and development, and digital forensics.

“We know that the service has to have the ability to respond to current and emerging national and international threats and risks. The Cyber Strategy 2020 sets out a clear pathway and underlines our commitment to working with our partners, sharing expertise from all sectors to tackle the threat and harm head on.”

The number of traditional crimes has decreased by 27% in the past decade. However, there has been a significant increase in cyber-dependent and cyber-enabled crime. The National Crime Agency has seen the number of referrals regarding child sexual abuse imagery to the National Crime Agency increase from 1591 in 2009 to 11,948 by 2018. The cyber strategy also reveals how traditional crimes ‘overwhelmingly now involve a digital element and require Police Scotland to gather, sort, analyse and present significant volumes of digital evidence’.

Online fraud and bank theft of a bank card or bank account details was the type of cyber fraud and computer misuse reported by most victims (74%). Of this, 95% of online banking thefts crimes were reported to banks/credit card companies, while only 8% were ever reported to the police.

Whilst most cyber dependent or cyber-enabled crime occurs on the internet, an emerging threat highlighted in the strategy is the so-called ‘dark web’, where an increasing amount of organised crime takes place. The force makes a commitment in the document to enhance its presence on the dark wen, which is not accessible via search engines such as Google, and instead is accessed through an anonymising browser called Tor. It says: “Our trained people will be part of a network of global law enforcement specialists that can work together to share knowledge and tactics to tackle dark web criminality effectively, with increased ability to unlock evidence on encrypted devices and networks.”

Police Scotland also commits to utilising Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques to harness the power of data, pledging to build national automation, analytics and AI capabilities to enhance data quality, facilitate data sharing across key systems and extract insights that support evidence based policing.