The RCMP is setting up a new, highly specialized unit to fight the rapid spread of domestic and global cybercrime.

The move comes as part of a five-year policing strategy unveiled today in Ottawa.

"What has been missing is a directed focus and effort towards cybercrime," RCMP Chief Supt. Jeff Adam told CBC News in an interview at the force's highly restricted data forensics labs, part of its technical investigations services branch in Ottawa.

"As cybercrime has evolved over time, and the technology has evolved very quickly ... we've been kind of left doing it ad hoc, unformalized, unplanned," he said.

The RCMP's official Cybercrime Strategy promises "new policing measures to keep pace in a digital era."

It's an acknowledgement the Mounties, and indeed police around the globe, are struggling to deal with a vast array of emerging online crimes ranging from petty email scams and child exploitation to national security threats and highly organized hacking operations.

'Fundamental change'

The RCMP will spend $30.5 million over the next five years to assign 40 staff, both police officers and civilians, to a new, dedicated investigations unit. It will include intelligence analysts, trainers, highly specialized technical staff and more than two dozens investigators from its national division.

Adam says the growing complexity of internet-based crime launched from anywhere in the world is forcing police to rethink how they pursue cyber suspects.

"Can't see it. Can't touch it. It's not close by. It's not your neighbour. It's not even the next city over. Could be the next continent over. And that's a fundamental change in how we are going to have to approach this," Adam told CBC News during a tour of the RCMP's digital forensics labs in Ottawa.

The force has been involved in recent years in an FBI-led crackdown on hacking operations preying on hundreds of thousands of personal computers around the globe.

The Mounties have also arrested Canadians accused of hacking into government computers and charged some with deploying malware to infect, spy on and take control of victims' computers.

"Now there's the ability to press a finger on a button and send one million email messages that are scams. The ability for this technology to multiply its effects across a wide number of targets has changed the whole dynamic," Adam said.

A CBC News investigation this fall determined Canada has been falling behind other countries in efforts to help citizens and businesses stave off hacking and cyber scams.

The police force vows to play a leadership role to "strengthen the collection and analysis of cybercrime" and to "target the most sophisticated and complex cybercrimes in concert with domestic and international partners."

The key RCMP proposals include:

  • Creation of a dedicated team of cybercrime investigators by 2020;
  • Improvement of digital evidence capabilities;
  • Expanded training, more effective recruitment of specialized technical staff;
  • Improved intake, collection and analysis of cybercrime incidents;
  • Greater national co-ordination in major investigations;
  • Expanded international co-operation;
  • Providing Canadians and industry with more relevant and timely cybercrime information;
  • Supporting modernization of Canada's laws "to keep pace with technological change";
  • Working with the broader Canadian law enforcement community.

'Not quite there yet'

Leaders from police forces across Canada, including the RCMP, took part this spring in a study of cyber-policing around the globe, as part of a program run by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

CACP program director Norm Taylor says he's pleased the RCMP is placing more emphasis on catching cyber criminals.

"Much of the effort has been focused on national security. And with the release of this new cybercrime strategy, I'm hoping or I'm optimistic that we're going to start shifting more of the conversation towards the ways in which cybercrime is affecting everyday Canadians," Taylor said.

"For the average police service, if an individual in the community is victimized by cybercrime and they go knocking on the door of their local police service, they're likely going to be met with a dead stare. They just don't have the knowledge. They don't have the expertise."

Adam acknowledges police around the world have scrambled to figure out how best to respond to the surge in internet-based scams, phishing emails, malicious attachments and other frauds.

"Regardless of what jurisdiction you live in, you should be able to phone your local police and report cybercrime and have the police know or at least be able to tell you what happened and know how to deal with it. We're working our way towards that point. [We're] not quite there yet."