Super-Asbos planned for cybercriminals

The Home Office is pushing for sweeping powers to ban suspected hackers from using the Internet, but security experts are concerned that civil liberties could be infringed

The Home Office wants to give the police and the courts sweeping new powers which could see suspected hackers and spammers receiving the cyber equivalent of an anti-social behaviour order (Asbo).

The proposed Serious Crime Prevention Order is intended to combat organised crime where the police do not have enough evidence to bring a criminal prosecution. It would enable civil courts to impose the orders on individuals, even if they had not been convicted of a crime.

The proposals are contained within a Home Office green paper called New Powers Against Organised and Financial Crime", published on Monday.

A Home Office spokesman confirmed on Tuesday that the proposals, if enforced, would give the police and courts "extensive powers" against suspected hackers and spammers, which could extend to banning people from using the Internet.

Asbos give the courts almost unlimited powers when imposing conditions on the person receiving the order. Under the Home Office proposals, the courts would have almost unlimited discretion to impose the order if they believe it probable that a suspect had "acted in a way which facilitated or was likely to facilitate the commissioning of serious crime". In a civil court, hearsay is admissible evidence, and the burden of proof is lighter than criminal courts.

"The proposals would give extensive powers [to the courts and police]. Suspected hackers could be banned from the Internet, or banned from entering Internet cafés," a Home Office spokesman told ZDNet UK.

Those suspected of hacking or spamming could also have computer equipment taken away by the police.

"Equipment can be seized [if the proposals go through]," said the Home Office spokesman.

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Suspected cybercriminals could also have severe limitations imposed on their financial dealings, requiring them to use "notified financial instruments" such as credit cards and bank accounts, and limit the amount of cash they can carry. They could also lose their businesses, property, or anything which may "have been used to facilitate serious crime".

The proposals also call for greater data transfer and mining capabilities between public and private sector bodies for law enforcement, enabling the police to track financial transactions.

Security professionals have flagged up the impact that the Home Office proposals would have on civil liberties.

"It would be a good piece in the law-enforcement arsenal, if judiciously used," said Richard Starnes, president of the Information Systems Security Association (ISSA).

"Obviously one pitfall is that this could adversely affect people's civil liberties, without going through the judicial process. The judicial process is there for a reason — to prevent the State from abusing its citizens," said Starnes.

"In the US, this legislation would not be constitutional," said Starnes.

"If the Home Office can show it can use these powers in a reasonable and prudent manner, then I'm in favour," Starnes added.

The Home Office said that the courts would have to decide whether the proposed legislation would contravene individuals' rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, and insisted that the proposals were "a good idea".

"This [the proposals] is what we're going to push for," said the Home Office spokesman.

However, these proposals are not set in stone, as they will be debated in Parliament. Stakeholders including the police and judiciary will be consulted, as well as the public, who can download a PDF of the proposals from the Home Office Web site.