Hard shell: University of the West of England engineers Christopher Melhulish, Ian Horsfield and Alan Winfield with replicas of the first autonomous, mobile robots in the world, on display in the Mind Zone of the Millennium Dome. The robots have modern electronics and software, but perform the same three kinds of behaviour as those designed by Grey Walter, a neurologist at Burden Neurological Institute in Frenchay, Bristol, in the late 1940s Police forces and universities in Spain, Italy and Germany are uniting in the fight against computer hackers, e-fraudsters, porn distributors and the like.
Organised Computer Crime is a two-year project, coordinated by Spain's Open University of Catalonia (OUC) and co-funded by the European Commission under the Falcone programme.
Other project partners are Barcelona's Autonomous University, Italy's Trento University, Germany's Baden-Wurttemberg University of Applied Police Sciences, the Police School of Catalonia and the Central Crime Squad of Spain's National Police Force.
The researchers examined existing crime patterns, what new security risks may arise in future and compared the legal frameworks of Spain, Italy and Germany.
The results were used to develop an online training course for police information-technology experts, based on a model, known as the virtual campus, developed by the OUC. The first pilot group of trainees is due to finish its training at the end of this month.
The computer crimes that dominate police thinking include child pornography, electronic fraud, theft of data and intellectual property, sabotage, defamation and privacy issues.
George Nold, lecturer at the University of Applied Police Sciences, described how tests conducted in Germany showed that fraudsters can now capture passwords of electronic bank accounts and use them to access the contents. He believes no computer system is 100 per cent secure, but many companies are unprepared.
"US studies have shown most companies have no idea what to do when they are being attacked. Often they just ignore it," he said.
Organising an international approach to a crime that respects no national boundaries was a natural choice for the Falcone partners. "When you are dealing with telematics, it is not a question of whether you feel like cooperating or not - if you do not, you are bound to fail dismally," said Francesc Guillen, head of research at Catalonia's police school.
A cross-border approach to fighting computer crime is difficult with national legal frameworks so diverse. Fermin Morales, professor of criminal law at Barcelona's Autonomous University, believes convergence will happen and that by mapping different legal systems, this project is contributing to the process.
The pilot course was followed simultaneously by about 100 police officers in Germany and Spain. Thomas Swoboda, a police officer in the Baden-Wurttemburg force, was a student on the pilot course and has since become a trainer. His training included simulating attacks by hackers, testing user responses to computer crime and building case studies of legal precedents. Joaquin Bisbal, director of law studies at the OUC, believes the online format is especially suited to training people in information-technology issues, such as computer crime, because "the learning and the application of knowledge is pretty much simultaneous".
Mr Guillen predicts the flexibility of online courses such as this means they will become increasingly popular for training organisations such as the police.
"Distance learning will open a lot of doors for us," he said. "There is no way you can get 20,000 people working on the beat to come into a training centre every time there is a new kind of problem or a new law."
Professor Bisbal believes the number of partners must grow as the current level of international involvement is "significant, but not sufficient".
"What we will do now is to carry on working together and try to attract more partners," he said.