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Department of Computer Science and Technology

Dr Alice Hutchings, a researcher into cybercrime and a University Lecturer on computer security, has today (3 Sept 2020) been awarded a coveted European Research Council Starting Grant.

The grant to Dr Hutchings, who is Deputy Director of our Cambridge Cybercrime Centre, will fund five years of interdisciplinary research into high-tech cybercrime activities – such as unauthorised access to computer systems, denial-of-service attacks and some types of online frauds.

It is one of two ERC Starting Grants awarded today to researchers in this department. Dr Amanda Prorok is also the recipient of a Starting Grant.

Dr Hutching's iCrime Project will have several strands and employ approaches from both social science and computer science to look at how people start offending and how their offending progresses; to consider how underground marketplaces and forums facilitate cybercrime; and to study the methods by which such crimes are carried out.

ERC Starting Grants are aimed at talented early-career scientists who have completed their PhD within the last seven years, who have already produced excellent supervised work and show potential to be a research leader. This year, the ERC awarded funding worth in total €677 million, to help these early-career scientists and scholars to build their own teams and conduct pioneering research across all disciplines. The grants are part of the EU’s Research and Innovation programme, Horizon 2020.

The grants carry considerable prestige. They are awarded annually via a very competitive application process; this year, for example, just 436 of the 3,272 applications were successful – a success rate of 13.3%. 

In the iCrime Project, the researchers will also employ a range of methods, from statistical approaches to machine learning, to evaluate the most effective methods to disrupt criminal activity in ways that are simple for the disrupter but devastating for the offender.

"There's a huge lack of evidence-based research in this area. We still don't know enough about what really works when it comes to trying to disrupt or prevent cybercrime."

Dr Alice Hutchings

This work is likely to be of very significant interest to policymakers, says Dr Hutchings.

"There’s a huge lack of evidence-based research in this area," she explains. "We still don’t know enough about what really works when it comes to trying to disrupt or prevent cybercrime.

"Lots of people are trying to do this, but interventions to try and prevent criminal activity on one network or website often just displace them to another, rather than stopping them altogether. That’s why we really need to gather more evidence into what the most effective interventions are."

The grant for Dr Hutchings’ iCrime (Interdisciplinary Cybercrime) Project will run for five years and enable her to recruit researchers and doctoral students from a range of backgrounds to work on the project.

Dr Hutchings brings an interdisciplinary approach to her work. She first began researching cybercrime in her native Australia in the late 1990s, working as a private investigator on cases of domain name misuse and software counterfeiting in industry.

Wanting to learn more, she returned to university and completed a PhD in criminology, focusing on offender pathways into, and out of, cybercrime.

She subsequently worked as a researcher for the Australian Institute of Criminology before seeing an opportunity to come to Cambridge as a researcher in 2014.

The following year she helped to set up the Cambridge Cybercrime Centre. One of its main aims is to collect data and share it with other academic researchers and in this, it is successful. Data it has collected are now being used by over 100 researchers in over 30 institutions.

And this concerted and multi-disciplinary approach is essential, Dr Hutchings says.

“There are lots of people taking actions they hope will be effective in disrupting cybercrime, but they don’t know if these are effective. And in the meantime, of course, offenders are working hard to get around these barriers.

“So employing different perspectives in this research, and bringing different approaches to bear on the problem, will be really beneficial.”

Published by Rachel Gardner on Thursday 3rd September 2020