UK 'Cyber-Cop' Unit Gets Cautious Welcome from Privacy Campaigners

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London ( - The British government Wednesday launched a special police unit to fight the growing menace of computer-based crime, including hacking, virus-writing, and the use of computers by pedophiles, drug traffickers and fraudsters.

Privacy campaigners welcomed the approach, but warned it would need to be transparent to allay citizens' concerns about "big brother" snooping of their legitimate online activities.

Comprising 40 specially-trained officers to begin with, the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHCTU) will operate from a secret location in London. The aim is eventually to have double that number, and for every constabulary (local police force) in the UK to have at least one unit member attached to it, to tackle cyber crime in the area.

The multi-agency unit involves officers from national criminal investigation, intelligence, customs and excise, as well as local police forces, together with IT industry representatives.

Part of the multi-million dollar investment announced by the government earlier this year will help pay for a round-the-clock international hotline to trade information on potential attacks and promote better cross-border cooperation.

Home Secretary Jack Straw said Wednesday the government had to ensure that investigation techniques used by police kept up with advances in computer technology.

"New technologies bring enormous benefits to the legitimate user, but also offer opportunities for criminals, from those involved in financial fraud to pedophiles," he said at the launch, held at a London museum.

"We are determined that the UK will be the best and safest place in the world to conduct and engage in e-commerce, and that our children receive the full protection they deserve online so they can surf the Net in safety," he added.

Recent high-profile cases of online child pornography and pedophile networks have alarmed childcare charities here, prompting them to call for wide-ranging police powers, and particularly the ability to trap offenders by trawling online chat rooms undercover.

The government last year enacted new legislation giving police powers to eavesdrop on private Internet traffic and to demand encryption keys to help them decode any scrambled data they intercept. The powers will come into effect later this year, in conjunction with the setting up of a 24-hour national surveillance and coordination center.

The new Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act, and now the setting up of the "cyber-cop" unit, has alarmed civil liberties campaigners, who fear people's privacy may be threatened.

Some are concerned the government could use the powers to disrupt the activities of peaceful protest groups, such as some animal rights organizations or campaigners protesting high fuel taxes.

Yaman Akdeniz of Cyber Rights and Cyber Liberties said Wednesday he welcomed the fact law enforcement agencies were becoming more organized and would coordinate efforts nationally and internationally.

But the cyber-crime unit would have to be "open, transparent and accountable" if people are to be reassured they won't be spied on in cyberspace.

Akdeniz added that internet service providers (ISPs) should not be turned into "an arm of the law enforcement agencies."

"The government is committed to ensuring a safe and secure online environment for Internet users in the UK, but such commitment should be balanced with the protection of privacy rights and should not lead into a surveillance society," he said.

Early this year computer industry giants including Microsoft, IBM and Intel teamed up with the U.S. government and FBI to establish a global cooperation system to counter cyber-crime attacks.

They plan to set up information sharing and analysis centers around the world to collate and distribute information on potential threats, and weaknesses and loopholes in systems that can be exploited by hackers.

Also see:
'UK Police Need Clear Powers To Entrap Online Pedophiles' (Feb 15, 2001)
Email Interception Moves Closer in UK (May 12, 2000)

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow