Promises that Internet paedophiles would be dealt with as a "top priority" by the government's new High-Tech Crime Unit have been undermined by the National Crime Squad (NCS) which has confirmed that such cases will continue to be dealt with at a local level.
At the Internet Watch Foundation's (IWF) first parliamentary meeting in the House of Lords in January, Home Office minister Lord Bassam said policing of Internet paedophiles would be a "top priority" for the special unit.
"Of course the new unit will treat this [Internet paedophiles] as a top priority. Its important that we deal with this issue and that is precisely why it has been set up," said Bassam.
But NCS denies this, asserting instead that this will only be applicable to major international paedophile cases.
Child protection units are unconvinced by the government's commitment to tackle paedophile crime on the Internet, and are sceptical about the priority that the so-called "cybersquad" will give to paedophile units.
The cybersquad was launched by home secretary Jack Straw in November to crack down on Internet crime. The £25m cash injection was earmarked for boosting police resources in combatting online paedophilia, fraud, extortion and hacking at a national and local level.
"The unit has said it will deal with major cases of Internet paedophiles, but I don't know what that means," said inspector Terry Jones at the Greater Manchester Police Obscene Publications Unit, highlighting the lack of clarity surrounding the unit's remit. Peter Sommer, research fellow at the London School of Economics, believes that the unit will only deal with incidents that "cross beyond a single police boundary, have an international dimension or could act as an intelligence exercise".
Jim Reynolds, former head of the paedophile unit at New Scotland Yard points out "any crime carried out on the Internet becomes international immediately". The special unit's decision to only investigate high profile paedophile cases would suggest an intension to cherry-pick their operations. "A typical paedophile case isn't interesting," argues Sommer. "It is only when groups of paedophiles form a club or swap files, or images have an intelligence value in tracking children down that a national unit would become interested."
Sommer acted as an expert defence witness at the Operation Cathedral trial in January, but argues that there are more important things the cybersquad could be doing.
"The chatroom shift is one of the more difficult areas of cyberstalking as it is more difficult to find the resources for proactive surveillance." He explains that the end prosecution will not be as important to the new unit as seeming to spend public money properly. "You are looking at substantial resources for a very little result [in typical Internet paedophile cases]."
Jones estimates that 70 percent of the work carried out by Manchester's Obscene Publications Unit is based on reactive investigations surfacing through child abuse cases and argues that a more proactive approach "could and should be done".
The number of child pornography and paedophile cases on the Internet is growing rapidly in the UK. During 1995, the Obscene Publications Unit at Greater Manchester Police seized a total of 12 images being transferred over the Internet. By 1999 this figure had risen to 41,000 pornographic images, all bar three in computer format, seized while being transferred over the Net. Some offenders were found to be in possession of over 50,000 stored images.
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