Government defends new cyber-snooping powers

Hewitt, Clarke cite need to 'modernise police powers' - but no cyber-crime figures forthcoming

The government defended its decision to give police the power to snoop on the Internet Friday, but said it had no hard figures to back up its stance.

On the day the government published its long-awaited E-communications Bill (formerly the E-Commerce Bill), Home Office minister Charles Clarke and e-Minister Patricia Hewitt stoutly defended the decision to push through controversial law enforcement measures, claiming they were urgently needed to "modernise police powers". While law enforcement clauses in the e-communications bill have been removed, snooping policies will still be pursued via the Home Office's Investigatory Powers Bill.

According to Clarke, the need for these measures is a matter of "urgency", with terrorists, paedophiles, drug traffickers and money launderers all using the Internet to perpetrate crimes. Clarke claimed the authorities needed access to encrypted data in order to fight crime. "With the new Investigatory Powers Bill we decided to put all the law enforcement measures in one bill," he said. "While we all want e-commerce to flourish, the very technology that makes e-commerce possible is also being used by criminals, sometimes to devastating effect."

Clarke, however, had no hard statistics to back up his statements. Pointing to the NCIS (National Criminal Intelligence Service) survey into computer crime -- Operation Trawler -- he claimed that the Internet is "increasingly used for crimes" but neither the minister nor NCIS's survey gives any indication of the actual number of crimes happening on the Internet.

It is estimated that it will cost every ISP up to £1m to install the surveillance equipment necessary to give the police access to encrypted emails. Clarke claims the government is currently reviewing these costs but offered no indication that they would be lowered. According to an NCIS spokeswoman the cost is irrelevant, compared to the dangers of Internet crime. "Encryption could cost someone their life," she said. "If there is an encrypted file in relation to a contract killing or the setting up of a paedophile ring someone's life could be in danger."

She was unable to throw light on the numbers of criminals using the Internet. "I don't even know if those statistics exist," she said, claiming the picture would be clearer when the Computer Crime unit was set up.

The cyber crime-fighting unit is due to be created "very soon", the spokeswoman said.

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