Home & Office

Online fraud used as political football

With the authorities on one team and civil rights campaigners on the other it should be an engrossing game - but with serious consequences for Joe Public
Written by Will Knight, Contributor

Law enforcers say that a rise in Internet fraud has contributed significantly to the latest crime figures in Britain. The comments were immediately shot down by civil liberty campaigners who argue this a smokescreen for increased government control of the Internet.

According to the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), an upsurge in online swindling demands legislation in the form of the RIP Bill, which gives the police powers to monitor email and Internet browsing.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill, which has passed through the House of Lords and is about to become law will give police the power to tap into Internet traffic at ISPs and control the use of encryption in the UK.

The Home Office figures on crime -- Recorded Crime Statistics, England and Wales, April 1999 to March 2000 -- released this week show that fraud and forgery have increased nationwide by 20 percent.

NCIS says Internet fraud has played a leading role in this increase. "It is generally acknowledged that those kinds of crimes are increasing," says a spokeswoman. "[Numbers of] criminals using the Internet for criminal activity are increasing and are only going to increase."

According to this spokeswoman, the police have seen a particular growth in the number of fake Web sites that are being used to carry out credit card fraud as well as email pyramid selling and tax cons. "This is why we support the RIP Bill," she says.

A representative from Stand.org.uk, a group that monitors government regulation of the Internet, believes the NCIS comments are glib at best. "They're taking figures as a scare story for why they should have intrusive powers," says Malcolm Hutty. "It's perfectly legal to monitor innocent parties under RIP, if the home secretary believes this will control crime."

The government this week also launched a voluntary accreditation scheme for Web sites to try to curb fraudulent e-commerce. The project called TrustUK has also been criticised for failing to adequately address online fraud.

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