By Angus Crawford
Internet service providers charge up to £65 a time for data
The unit set up to tackle child sex abuse in the UK has had to pay tens of thousand of pounds to internet firms for information, the BBC has learned.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) has spent more than £170,000 since 2006.
The money has gone to internet service providers (ISPs) which charge for their data. CEOP chief executive Jim Gamble said the situation was "ridiculous".
The figure comes after a BBC request under the Freedom of Information Act.
Mr Gamble said: "The information that internet service providers hold is critically important to us."
CEOP was set up in 2006 to tackle the sexual abuse of children.
It works both online gathering intelligence, and on the ground protecting young people from abuse and tracing offenders.
"If you're a child on a social networking site, you will expose certain information about yourself," Mr Gamble said.
Explaining how vulnerable children are preyed upon, he put himself in the position of an abuser and said: "As a predator I go into the environment and collect information.
"If I lure that child from that space and that child is subsequently abused, an investigation will take place."
Online not everyone is who they say they are.
ISPs though hold information about the identity of their customers and the location of computers they use.
CEOP works closely with the industry to track potential victims and sex offenders. Since 2006 the unit has made 9,400 requests for information to ISPs.
The information can "very often, identify, locate and safeguard a child who is subject to abuse," according to Mr Gamble.
The law says that ISPs can charge for the service. Some do not. Others, though, demand as much as £65 a time.
After a request under the Freedom of Information Act, the BBC has learned that since it was set up, CEOP has had to pay £171,505 for data.
Jim Gamble says he does not object to paying for information when investigating mainstream criminal activity.
He said: "Where it's any type of ordinary criminal offence, then of course we need to pay. If we are diverting them from their core business we need to recompense them for that."
But he feels it is unacceptable when working to prevent harm to children in an online area created by the ISPs themselves.
"Their core business is the online environment, bringing customers to that environment, and where customers coming to that area commit a crime, it's ridiculous that we would have to pay to successfully investigate that," he said.
The body which represents ISPs disagrees.
Nicholas Lansman, secretary general of the Internet Service Providers' Association, said: "Taxpayers' money has always gone to the police whether it's to purchase vehicles or uniforms or any other equipment.
"ISPs charge a certain amount to recover their costs, this is not about them making money. Many companies don't actually make those charges.
"There's a whole lot of other work in terms of training police and finding more information that doesn't get part of the equation in terms of those costs."
He believes the discussion to be had may be about the better resourcing of law enforcement. The government is aware of the issue.
A Home Office spokesman said it welcomes the positive role the communications industry plays in providing the communications data needed by the police.
He said: "We are liaising with police, law enforcement and industry partners to implement a system designed to bring greater efficiencies and certainty to the current arrangements and with a view to reducing costs."
Mr Gamble welcomes government involvement, but feels a change of attitude by the industry is just as important.
"We don't need new legislation, we need new thinking, we need sensible thinking," he said.
He added that for the money CEOP has had to pay ISPs, it could have employed two full-time investigators.
"What we're saying is if you create a public place, you have responsibilities and you need to live up to those responsibilities in that public place frequented by children," he said.