High tech crime chief calls for new Internet laws

UK laws could prevent cybersquad from proactively policing the Net, says the head of the National Crime Squad

The director general of the National Crime Squad (NCS) admitted today that UK legislation is inadequate for dealing with computer-based crime. Bill Hughes voiced his concerns during the launch of the UK's National High-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) on Wednesday, which was attended by home secretary Jack Straw.

NCS will work in partnership with the National Crime Intelligence Squad (NCIS), HM Customs and Excise, and local police forces to form the UK's first national law enforcement organisation specifically tackling cybercrime. But speaking at the launch, Hughes confirmed growing fears that existing legislation could hinder national proactive investigations and fail to deal with Internet-specific crimes.

"The law needs to catch up with what is happening online -- it is often the case that legislation is inadequate," said Hughes. "We need powers in new areas rather than simply asking for more laws -- we are dealing with new approaches to society that are creating a different world and necessitating a new way in which we deal with crime."

Hughes described NCS tactics as "lawfully audacious", arguing it is theoretically possible to conduct proactive investigations under UK legislation, but only after stretching the law to its limits. "In dealing with IT crime, we have to look at all the options available, and come up with new ways of dealing with the problem. We will not operate outside of the law," Hughes added.

Terry Jones at Greater Manchester's Obscene Publications Unit, one of the few existing cybercrime units in the country, said that current legislation may be sufficient to deal with cybercrime retrospectively in order to recover evidence, but is more applicable to reactive rather then proactive investigations. Eighty-five percent of the Unit's work is based on reactive investigations surfacing through child abuse cases.

"We're stretching the legislation to fit a new set of circumstances in a new environment, which needs to be addressed," said Jones. "The Internet is also creating a new type of offender -- one who would not normally have involved themselves in this arena," he added.

Last month the largest proactive investigation ever undertaken in the UK to crack down on Internet child pornography was executed by Manchester's Obscene Publications Unit. Sixteen hours of online investigation in a few chat areas managed to identify 61 UK-based suspects, and resulted in search warrants for homes and offices of 48 of those. Computer equipment was seized at every location, and 36 arrests were made on the day. The success of Operation Appal, however, additionally reveals the challenge facing the NHTCU in launching national proactive investigations into organised crime using IT.

"Whilst we were online investigating Operation Appal, 22,000 IRC channels were live with 52,000 participants," explains Jones. "We were only looking at a handful of channels."

Launching the new NHTCU, home secretary Jack Straw voiced his conviction that "a crime offline must also be a crime online, and require similar investigation". Under existing British laws, police are able to conduct covert investigations, but are prevented from posing as "agent provocateurs". When dealing with Internet paedophiles for example, police are unable to adopt the FBI approach of posing as children in chatrooms. Instead the Home Office maintains that the 1960 Indecency with Children Act is adequate to convict a Net paedophile for "acts of gross indecency against a child".

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