UK government launches cyber police

The U.K.'s first national law enforcement organization dedicated to fight IT-related crime was launched Wednesday. The special police force, named National Hi-Tech Crime Unit, consists of 80 law enforcement specialists who will be based throughout the country, the National Criminal Intelligence Service said in a statement.

Fighting computer crime is nothing new for U.K. police. The Metropolitan Police, better known as Scotland Yard, has had a computer crime unit in place since 1984, said spokeswoman Angie Evans. However, the Scotland Yard unit only covers London, whereas the new unit is nationwide. Some of the Scotland Yard unit's officers will be working for the new unit, Evans said.

The special police force cost 25 million pounds (US$28.62 million) to establish, Home Secretary Jack Straw said in the statement.

The high-tech crime unit's primary task will be to detect and investigate crime committed through the use of IT, as well as to help local police forces, the statement said.

The new crime unit has four main divisions: investigation, intelligence, support and forensic retrieval. A secondary goal for the unit is to find out the extent of Internet and computer-related crime. The new police force will focus on getting a better view of how big the problem is, the statement said.

There are two types of high-tech crime. Hacking and denial of service attacks constitute one type, committed against IT systems. The second type is fraud and harassment, committed against the person using the IT system. U.K.'s new police force will focus primarily on the first category, but will help other police forces in their fight against the second category, the statement said.

The high-tech crime unit will be based in London, and will work with government as well as with the IT industry, according to the statement.

Some observers are highly skeptical of the government's initiative, arguing that at least some of the crimes likely to be investigated by the new police force are not Internet specific. Law enforcement should not, therefore, use such activity on the Net as an excuse to control the medium and hamper individual privacy, opponents contend.

"I haven't been convinced that there is a substantial need for this unit," said Yaman Akdeniz, who is director of the nonprofit Cyber-Rights and Cyber Liberties organization, as well as a researcher for criminal justice studies at Leeds University.

"I believe child pornography is a serious crime, but it is not an Internet specific problem," Akdeniz said, indicating that the a special unit isn't needed to fight crimes exist outside of cyberspace.

Lars Davies, lecturer at the center for commercial law studies at the University of London, agreed.

"There is no such thing as online crime. There is crime full stop," said Davies, adding that a criminal offense like hacking, while done on a computer, is still a crime.

"Pedophilia is a horrific crime, but it must not be used as an excuse to give (the police) extra control over a medium," Davies said, adding that his main concern over the new police force is individuals' privacy.

Davies is particularly critical of the part of the new police force that is going to undertake national proactive investigations of crime using IT.

"What happens if a person logs onto an (Internet) address by mistake, and ends up on a pedophilia site? Will he immediately be flagged down? And how can he prove that he never meant to visit the site?" Davies said.

But that's not the aim of the new computer crime initiative, said Fleur Strong, spokeswoman for the National Criminal Intelligence Service. Police have neither the time or the inclination to search through individuals' e-mail, she said.

"This unit is looking at serious and organized crime," Strong said.

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