Early last Thursday, police in Market Harborough and Rugby arrested two forensics experts, Jim Bates and Chris Magee, on charges of "conspiracy to possess indecent images of children". Jim Bates has frequently given testimony in computer forensic and child pornography cases, and had been working on a case along with Magee, who is a director of Cyber Forensics.
The arresting officers also seized large quantities of material, both hard copy and digital, from the two men. This included material that is claimed to be "privileged" within the meaning of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.
Jim Bates is controversial. He has testified extensively and often in criminal cases, but is best known for his role in defending individuals accused of downloading child porn, and for his criticism of Operation Ore, which resulted in thousands of child pornography arrests in the UK.
Talking to The Register he made it clear that he sees the official investigation of many such cases as systematically flawed. He is scathing of police "experts" in this area, arguing that most lack the expertise to carry out all but the most basic of analyses. According to Bates: “Computer Forensics is not about proving innocence or guilt, but about finding facts and providing them to the court".
Clearly, he is a thorn in the side of authority, but he hasn't exactly helped his cause by misrepresenting his own background. Until recently, he was claiming a BSc in Engineering which he was subsequently shown not to have.
In a hearing at Crown Court earlier this year, Bates was found guilty of perjury for having misrepresented his qualifications. But in closing remarks, Judge Hammond observed that he was "not a charlatan", and further that he had "a real expertise", and had "just embellished his status".
Since being convicted of perjury, Bates has effectively been barred from acting as an expert witness. But he still provides advice on cases, and it was in this capacity that he and Chris Magee visited a Bristol Police station in June of this year.
They went there to clone a hard drive which was central to an ongoing case. According to Bates, this was a procedure he had carried out many times before in similar cases, and there was no hint of any difference in this one.
They examined the machine in situ, carried out tests for presence of malware, and took a video of the proceedings. When they left, they took with them a copy of the original hard drive.
Over the following summer, Bates claims he was pressured by the Prosecution Counsel and took legal advice. But there was no hint of the visit to come.
As he observes: "If the Police wanted their hard drive back, they had only to ask."
The logic behind the arrest – which suggests that he and Magee had visited the Police Station for the purposes of obtaining child porn - is therefore bizarrely reminiscent of some 60s crime comedy: 'we’ve run out of porn. Where can we get some? I know: let’s dress up as defence experts and raid the local police station.' Funny, were the subject matter not so darkly serious.
So why would the Police carry out such an action. One issue the Police may have is in respect of Bates' now questionable status: since his conviction he can no longer act as an expert witness, so perhaps he should not still be involved.
Chris Saltrese, a solicitor specialising in sexual offences and related internet crime, however points out that the material Bates was working on is connected to Operation Ore. Saltrese is in the process of seeking leave to appeal, in a landmark case that could lead to the overturning of a conviction for "incitement to possess indecent images of children".
While this is just one case, it hinges on the argument – long resisted by the authorities – that many of those convicted on this charge were not perpetrators of crime, but victims of identity fraud. That claim has not changed. What has changed is the availability – since 2006 - of new US data for forensic examination.
If the appeal is upheld, it could open the floodgates, first for the other hundred or so convicted of incitement and subsequently for some proportion of the 2,000 convicted of possession.
The data removed from Bates' home is claimed to include privileged material that is central to this appeal. A spokesman for Avon and Somerset Police told The Register that both Bates and Magee have been released on bail. ®
Editor's note: For legal reasons we don't ordinarily accept comments on stories where a legal case is pending. In error, this story was initially published set to accept comments, but we have now switched them off. Our apologies to those of you who attempted to comment before this happened.