Home Secretary Jack Straw has officially launched the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit today at the Science Museum in London.
The unit and its £25 million of funding was announced in November last year as part of Mr Straw's clampdown on cybercrime. The "lynchpin" unit will be based in London and manned with 40 specialised officers, headed by detective chief superintendent Len Hynds. A further 46 will placed around the country.
Its brief is to "proactively investigate serious and organised crime using IT". This mission will be hugely aided by a number of recent laws passed by Parliament which give the police unprecedented access to email and Internet traffic. Main targets will be hackers (now equivalent to terrorists), fraudsters and paedophiles.
As well as this, it will advise police forces around the country, discuss policy with the government and be a 24/7 information service for other countries' police forces and secret services.
At the launch - to which critics of the government's policies were not invited and/or were banned - Jack Straw gave his usual lines. "New technologies bring enormous benefits to the legitimate user, but also offer opportunities for criminals, from those involved in financial fraud to paedophiles. We are determined that the UK will be the best and safest place in the world to conduct and engage in e-commerce" etc etc.
Director General of National Crime Squad, Bill Hughes, spoke about needing an agency to tie together all the different law enforcement agencies in order to effectively tackle Internet crime. The fact that money is going electronic means that organised crime will go electronic, he said.
His deputy, Roger Gaspar, made the same point about Net crime's expected huge expansion. "The more IT is used in social and business life, the more IT will be used to commit crimes," he said.
What about Lucky Len Hynds? He's 43, been a copper for 25 years and has a pedigree of detective work, having covered ganglands, drug trafficking and extortion. In short, he's a tough nut. He also knows how to deal with the press. He told the BBC: "We have no inclination, nor the desire, nor the ability to trawl people's e-mails."
That isn't strictly true, but it was certainly the right thing to say. This desire to get the message across without embarrassing questions that would say otherwise may explain the exclusion of a number of people. In short, the police have the legal right to snoop wherever they desire. They also have the capability and knowledge to do a blanket surveillance of traffic. Whether this approach will prove effective in combating crime is debatable, but you can be sure that they'll try it in many different permutations.
The ability of the NHTCU to bypass privacy at the click of a mouse aside, the creation of this hi-tech unit is a good bit of foresight by the police. By setting up a dedicated group before cybercrime has really kicked off will prove invaluable in future and will make the UK a far less attractive place for Internet crime. ®