Law enforcement chiefs strongly back new 'web snooping' powers

Keyboard and mouse MPs and peers were told the benefits of the plans outweighed concerns about civil liberties

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New powers to gather online communications data will make it easier to convict murderers and paedophiles, law enforcement chiefs have said.

The head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection agency also told Parliament that chances to help children at risk of suicide were missed nearly every day without the powers.

Ministers argue reforms are needed to catch criminals using new technology.

But some civil liberties groups say the plans are a "snooper's charter".

The heads of a string of law enforcement agencies and associations strongly supported the government's position as they testified to a committee of MPs and peers charged with scrutinising the legislation containing the new powers.

The Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Data Bill heard details of one case where existing powers to gather data on mobile phone communications had made it possible to find and convict the perpetrators of a double murder.

Start Quote

When I sit down with my senior investigating officers, both in counter-terrorism and in serious crime, they all say that they have experience of not being able to get the data that they would like, and that they are feeling that increasingly”

End Quote Cressida Dick Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner
Vulnerabilities

But Peter Davies, the chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (Ceop) agency, told them, "bluntly, there were other people involved in the conspiracy, who it might have been possible to prosecute and convict, but it was not possible" under the current regime on gathering communications data.

In a separate case involving the production and distribution of child pornography, Mr Davies said, "132 children in the UK were safeguarded and protected, nearly 200 suspects were arrested... and the four people at the heart of this operation, which was run for profit and, regrettably, for enthusiasm, were convicted.

"Without access to communications data, those outcomes would not have been possible."

But, he added, had law enforcement agencies been given access to other types of communications data, as now proposed by the government, "more people might have been brought to justice; more children might have been safeguarded".

The law enforcement chiefs were reluctant to divulge precise information about the data to which they sought access, for fear of exposing their vulnerabilities to criminals. They offered to brief the committee on such details in private.

'Ethically complex'

But Mr Davies gave one very specific example of the difference that the legislation could make.

Children seeking help from ChildLine - a charity offering free counselling services - via the internet cannot be traced as easily as those using telephones.

"It is inconceivable to imagine a society where law enforcement, or people like ChildLine, are denied the opportunity to identify children at risk of suicide [who are seeking help online], locate them, and then get the right thing done about them," Mr Davies told the committee.

This situation was arising "more or less daily", he added.

Gary Beautridge, of the Association of Chief Police Officers, told the committee about a recent investigation he had overseen into the rape of two children.

"Because of the method of communication that was used, which was web-based communications," he said, "we had to employ other techniques, which were ethically and technically extremely complex, very expensive, and very lengthy, to bring this offender to justice."

'Surveillance on the entire nation'

Mr Beautridge was asked whether he believed the legislation would help to ameliorate this situation. "Absolutely, I do," he affirmed.

Metropolitan Police Service assistant commissioner Cressida Dick remarked: "When I sit down with my senior investigating officers, both in counter-terrorism and in serious crime, they all say that they have experience of not being able to get the data that they would like, and that they are feeling that increasingly."

The committee also gathered evidence from Trevor Pearce, the director-general of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, and Donald Toon, the director of criminal investigation at HMRC.

In a Commons debate in May, former shadow home secretary David Davis was scathing about the proposals.

They would be costly to implement and "pretty straightforward" for organised criminals to circumvent, he said.

"We will create something which will not be effective against terrorism but which will be a general purpose surveillance on the entire nation," Mr Davis warned.

Campaign group Liberty has also argued that the proposals threatened individual privacy and suggested the coalition had gone back on a pledge on coming to office to end the storage of web and e-mail records "without good reason".

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