Government to create 'snoop unit'

Reports the government is to set up a snoop unit to watch the Internet for criminal activity have official departments confused and critics concerned.

The government is to set up a specialist snoop unit that targets paedophiles, drug barons and other criminals using the Net, according to reports.

Sources said the unit will be made up of programmers and crackers dedicated to breaking encryption codes. The government fears criminals will increasingly use encryption to send coded messages via the Net.

Despite reports the government is to fund the unit to the tune of £20m, confusion over who will have responsibility for the decryption unit was apparent Monday. The Cabinet Office published a report in May calling for "a technical assistance centre" to help police with decryption, but claimed Monday it had nothing to do with setting up a snoop unit. The Home Office and the Department of Trade and Industry also deny knowledge of the unit.

But the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), says it will provide staff for the unit. A spokesman for NCIS says the unit will form part of a wider Cyber Crime Squad and points out that the unit will be have to be involved in real-time surveillance. "There is no point having access to people's encryption after the crime is committed," the spokesman said.

The government is currently consulting with the industry on a proposed update to the Interception of Communications Act (IOCA), which would allow law enforcement agencies to tap into email and monitor Net surfing.

Many critics regard the unit as the latest in a series of controversial government Net plans. Key escrow -- in which decryption keys are lodged with a trusted third party to give law enforcers immediate access to data -- was dropped from the ecommerce bill industry and privacy pressure group following outrage.

One of the fiercest key escrow critics, Caspar Bowden of the Foundation for Policy Research, called on the government to explain what methods the snoop unit will use for decrypting data. "If these reports are true the government should say urgently which minister will be responsible, how special techniques will be authorised or warranted, how alleged abuses will be investigated and what redress will be available to any persons whose interests are unjustly harmed by these methods."

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