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Wednesday, 18 April, 2001, 15:24 GMT 16:24 UK
Cybercops arrest online liberty
Home Secretary Jack Straw
Jack Straw launches the high-tech crime unit
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

Civil liberties are already being eroded by efforts to tackle computer crime, MPs and cyber-liberty campaigners have warned.

They say laws passed to ease the task facing the new high-tech crime unit are in danger of riding roughshod over online privacy.

The MPs said the agency the UK Government set up to ensure online rights were respected was proving an "inadequate safeguard".

They also warned that unless the government moves swiftly to improve its track record it could find itself open to legal challenges under human rights legislation.

Criminal life online

This week, Home Secretary Jack Straw officially launched the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit which will tackle the growing numbers of criminals that use computers and the net to commit crimes.

Plans to set up the unit were first announced last year, since when officers have been recruited and its network of links with other forces have been put in place.

But both MPs and civil liberty campaigners are concerned that investigations run by officers in the new unit could infringe net users' rights to privacy.

Many of the new powers that law enforcement agencies can call on to tackle computer crimes were granted in the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act.

Black boxes

This Act has been dubbed a "snoopers charter" by civil liberty campaigners who say powers to intercept electronic communications are too wide-ranging and too lightly regulated.

Alan Beith MP
Alan Beith: Critic of the RIP safeguards
The Act sanctioned the creation of the National Technical Assistance Centre (NTAC) that will have permanent links to Britain's internet connection companies, making it easy to intercept almost anything passing across the net links of these firms.

NTAC will be sited at Thames House on Millbank in London. So far, discussions are continuing as to how to build the black boxes that will dip into data streams and pull out the information the cybercops want.

To allay these fears the Government created the Investigatory Powers Tribunal to act as a court of appeal for anyone who believes that investigating officers have unlawfully intercepted their communications when collecting evidence.

Limited appeal

But this week, a report written by members of the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) echoed the fears of civil liberty groups and strongly criticised the tribunal.

The report expressed the committee's concerns that the tribunal was unable to do its job properly, and noted that "for a significant period in 2000 the tribunal did not have sufficient secretariat to enable it even to open the mail, let alone process and investigate complaints".

During a debate on the report ISC member Alan Beith said it was "ludicrous" that such an important tribunal was so poorly staffed. "The several bodies involved are dependent on a tiny support structure which is quite incapable of carrying out the job," he said. "We are not providing a safeguard that should be there."

Internet think-tank, the Foundation for Information Policy Research, shares the fears of the ISC Committee. Director Caspar Bowden said it did not augur well for the future of civil liberties online if the tribunal was unable to do its job when its workload was so light.

He said that, according to government figures, in the last 15 years the forerunners of the tribunal had considered 568 complaints but investigated only eight.

Yaman Akdeniz, founder of the Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties pressure group and a researcher at the Leeds University cyberlaw unit, said: "I don't think the tribunal has much power and it remains to be seen how much teeth it has.

"It is good that the law enforcement agencies are getting co-ordinated and organised against technology crime activities," he said, "but this partnership could turn ISPs into an arm of the law enforcement agencies because there are a lot of requirements on them for data collection and analysis."

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