The Home Office has denied it has made any change to rules governing how police can remotely snoop on people's computers.
Any such remote hack - which normally requires physical access to a computer or network or the use of a key-logging virus - is governed by Ripa - and the rules have not changed. But European discussions on giving police more access are underway - we reported on the meeting of ministers in October. But despite this Sunday Times story, no change has yet been made. The paper claimed the Home Office: "has quietly adopted a new plan to allow police across Britain routinely to hack into people’s personal computers".
A spokesman for the Home Office told the Reg that UK police can already snoop - but these activities are governed by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the Surveillance Commissioner. He said changes had been proposed at the last Interior Ministers' meeting, but nothing has happened since.
The German Interior Ministry explained at the time that "almost all partner countries have or intend to have in the near future national laws allowing access to computer hard drives and other data storage devices located on their territory". But the Germans noted the legal basis of transnational searches is not in place and ministers were looking for ways to rectify this.
Mark Wills, a software engineer at Aker Solutions who emailed us the original story, said: "It is James Bond-style scaremongering and irresponsible. Me and my colleagues just laughed when we saw the story because we know about technology but this kind of thing just frightens people.
"The police have a touch too much power - all in the name of terrorism of course - but this sort of thing really doesn't help." Wills noted that the majority of people online use a firewall which would stop such instant access by the police.
In reality, any such search is difficult without physical access to a machine or network, or a naive user.
A Home Office spokesperson said: "The UK has agreed to a strategic approach towards tackling cyber crime on the same basis as all Member States - however, the decisions in the Council Conclusions are not legally binding and there are no agreed timescales.
"We fully support work to develop an understanding of the scale and impact of electronic crime across the EU and will work with Member States to develop the detail of the proposal.” ®