The UK Government is considering a revamp of the laws on high-tech crime and has given the IT community until February 2004 to make suggestions to Home Office minister Caroline Flint on possible changes.

“The aim is to outwit criminals, to think three paces ahead of what they do,” said Flint at the launch of the consultation at the House of Commons on 14 July. She hopes to get better information about the extent of high-tech crime and suggestions for overhauling laws such as the Computer Misuse Act, 1990.

The extent of e-crime is currently a mystery, as the police’s Hi-Tech Crime Unit itself believes that at least half of victims do not report it. Many big businesses fear the disruption of dealing with the police and poor publicity if it becomes known they are vulnerable. Some do not trust the expertise of the police in handling crimes.

Some ‘old’ crimes such as fraud and paedophilia now use the Internet but were not always reported as e-crime, said Flint. Police guidelines had changed to improve this, she said.

Meanwhile, the burden for crime prevention looks like falling on users. “We want to enable consumers to protect themselves and prevent crime in the first place” said Flint. She wanted electronic crime information to be included in crime prevention leaflets addressed to home owners and businesses.

The Computer Misuse Act may need changing, since it was drafted before the Internet and e-commerce was popular. The act did a good job of avoiding specific technologies, which would have guaranteed it would quickly go out of date: “The courts are favourably interpreting the act for 21st century technology,” she said. However, penalties under the act are not extraditable, so it is difficult to use against criminals abroad. Any changes will have to be carefully assessed, she said: “We want to hit the target but leave the flexibility.”

The IT lobby group EURIM is advising the government and welcomes input from users and the industry on the subject.