News / Canada

Decline in crime rate obscures rise in online wrongdoing: police chief

HALIFAX — Statistics suggesting crime rates in Canada have been falling for decades may not tell the whole story when it comes to criminal wrongdoing, the chief of Halifax Regional Police says.

Jean-Michel Blais says there are indications that the nature of crime is changing in a way that is not reflected in traditional crime data.

"And this crime is not being committed by your neighbour, and probably not someone here in Nova Scotia or even in Canada," he said in an interview. "It's being committed by somebody in a different country."

Blais, who plans to explore the issue Friday in a speech to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, says traditional crimes appear to be "morphing" and migrating to criminal acts perpetrated online.

As a result, he says, crime probably hasn't decreased as much as statistics might suggest.

In 2014, a study in the United Kingdom found just over half of those surveyed in Britain had been the victim of an online crime, including identity theft, hacking and illegally accessing and stealing from bank accounts.

The study found that much of this crime was never reported, which means it didn't show up in police statistics.

The Get Safe Online survey, conducted by market research firm Vision Critical, also showed that 53 per cent of those surveyed said they considered online crimes as serious as physical crimes.

"Crime really hasn't gone down as much as we think," Blais said in an interview. "It's ... migrated onto the Internet."

To illustrate his point, he suggested it has become common for anyone using email to be routinely prodded by fake messages that seek access to bank accounts or offer rich rewards for participating in shady international transactions.

"Think about the number of passwords that you have in your life, and imagine if those were hacked," he said. "On average, it takes 400 hours of time to rehabilitate a person's identification."

Last year, a PwC study conducted for the British government found 90 per cent of large corporations surveyed in Britain had experienced a security breach last year, up from 81 per cent in 2014, reflecting a similar trend for small- and medium-sized businesses.

"So, if you're part of a large company, chances are that in the future you will have a data breach," Blais said. "It's a real challenge."

The chief also mentioned the rise of the so-called Dark Web, an off-limits layer of the Internet where special software and codes are needed to access illicit material.

Statistics Canada says that the overall police-reported crime rate in Canada has been falling for more than 20 years — a reversal of the upward trend recorded between 1962 to 1991.

The trend applies to violent crime, including homicides, and many other Criminal Code offences, Statistics Canada reports.

The federal agency says experts have attributed the decline to a long list of factors, including an aging population, changing policing practices, shifts in unemployment and variations in alcohol consumption.

Similar downward trends have been observed in other countries.

Blais, a former Mountie who has served as police chief for almost four years, is also expected to speak about how traumatic events in other parts of the world — such as the rise in gun violence in the United States — can have ripple effect in Canada.