UK’s chief hacker to take over National Crime Agency’s economic and organized crime directorate
James Babbage, the head of the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Force (NCF), is to leave his role commanding the nation’s elite hacking capabilities later this month to take the reins at the National Crime Agency’s (NCA) directorate for economic and organized crime threats.
It has not previously been reported that Babbage is joining the NCA. His appointment follows the demotion of Steve Rodhouse, the agency’s director general for operations, in the wake of a scandal involving Rodhouse’s role in investigating false allegations of child abuse made by a since convicted hoaxer.
Rob Jones, the current interim head of the NCA's directorate for economic and organized crime threats, is assuming Rodhouse's position. Babbage will also occupy the role in a temporary capacity, with the Home Office having been unable to conclude a formal recruitment process for the position since 2021.
Babbage joins the NCA after almost three decades at Britain’s cyber and signals intelligence agency GCHQ. His identity was avowed earlier this year as the NCF published a paper explaining the country’s doctrine around offensive cyber operations.
He had effectively held a two-star rank equivalent to a major general as the commander of the NCF, and had led the force since 2020 when it was founded to consolidate the cyber capabilities previously scattered across Britain’s military and intelligence agencies.
Although the NCF is currently operational and “carrying out operations on a daily basis” — including against some of the same ransomware actors that will fall under Babbage’s portfolio at the NCA — it is not yet fully staffed due to a skills shortage across the British military and intelligence communities as well as society as a whole.
Its new permanent base in the village of Samlesbury in Lancashire has also not yet been built. Those planning its construction are hoping to avoid the mistake made with GCHQ’s “doughnut” in Cheltenham, noting that for all the glamor captured in aerial photography, its shape has not leant itself to being expanded.
Ultimately the NCF is expected to be “made up of a roughly equal share of personnel from the MoD and the intelligence agencies.”
A spokesperson for GCHQ told Recorded Future News that the appointment of Babbage’s successor was underway.
Babbage’s new role, as director general of the National Economic Crime Centre (NECC) and threat leadership, will see him helm Britain’s response to a broad range of economic crime, from commodity fraud through to international money laundering.
NECC is responsible for investigating some of the excesses created by successive British governments’ so-called “golden visa” scheme that, as the Guardian reported, “has attracted thousands of wealthy people from Russia and former Soviet states to settle in Britain.”
Since 2015, NECC’s money laundering task force has directly contributed to over 280 arrests and the seizure or restraint of over £86 million ($110 million).
The golden visa scheme was scrapped in the days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year. Earlier this year, the government announced that a small number of recipients may have obtained their wealth through corruption or organized crime, without offering a specific figure.
NECC’s work also involves tackling commodity fraud, which has proven to be a significant challenge for British law enforcement. Last year a report by the House of Commons Justice Committee warned the government’s response to fraud had failed and needed “a wholesale change in philosophy and practice.”
Fraud is estimated to "cost society at least £4.7 billion each year" (about $5.3 billion) yet less than 8% of reported crimes are investigated, with the committee finding that “the level of focus from policing is inadequate to deal with the scale, complexity and evolving nature of fraud.”
It accounts for almost 40% of all reported crime in Britain, more than half of which is conducted online. The Office for National Statistics estimates that 4.6 million fraud offenses are committed annually, “but in the year ending September 2021, just 7,609 defendants were prosecuted for fraud and forgery as the principal offense,” or around 0.1%.
A particular challenge has been the level of government funding across the whole of the criminal justice system. In its evidence submission to the committee, NECC said it “would like to particularly reinforce the importance of increased levels of funding” across the whole of the anti-fraud system, including prosecution.
Alexander Martin is the UK Editor for Recorded Future News. He was previously a technology reporter for Sky News and is also a fellow at the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative.