British law enforcement agents are quietly working with European counterparts on changes to national legislation that will allow them to share intelligence gained by hacking into suspects' PCs.
Sharon Lemon, director of the Serious and Organised Crime Agency's (SOCA) e-crime unit, told The Register data laws in some EU countries make it impossible for investigators to obtain and pool data covertly.
The desired change could mean law enforcement officers in eastern Europe could ask SOCA to hack into a suspect's PC for them and share the data. SOCA said its hacking activities are always within the law.
Lemon refused to be drawn on the specifics of the techniques the agency uses. "As our suspects use ever more sophisticated techniques, so do we," she said.
The SOCA e-crime unit's remit has a strong emphasis on international offending. Lemon said it was vital that use of "remote search" techniques - as hacking is known in law enforcement circles - was extended throughout the EU.
A working group coordinated by Europol, the EU police agency, is examining what legal changes might be required.
In a statement, SOCA said: "From a UK perspective, SOCA use a range of tools and techniques within, but to the full extent of available legal frameworks as required appropriate to each investigation, SOCA does not comment on the detailed use of individual technical tactical options."
UK law already allows for senior law enforcement officers to authorise hacking in the course of an investigation, under the Police Act 1997. According to the Surveillance Commissioner's annual report, in 2007/08 a total of 205 approvals to carry out "remote searches" were granted, up from 188 the previous year.
SOCA is keen for access to intelligence from hacking by foreign law enforcement because of the highly internationalised character of organised crime. "The working group aims to identify best practise, harmonise approaches and deliver an EU consensus on the issues," it said. "The result will be advice to decision makers/law makers at EU level to provide law enforcement with powers."
The working group's activities follow news at the end of last year that Jacqui Smith had signed the UK up to an EU agreement in principle to step up use of remote searches.
SOCA's remit covers drug and people trafficking, fraud and international e-crime. It also manages communications intercept operations for regional police forces. The agency is closely involved with the government's Interception Modernisation Programme, which aims to increase the ability of law enforcement and the intelligence agencies to monitor the internet.
SOCA is apparently pushing that agenda at EU level too. The Europol working group is also considering the use of VoIP and web-based communications by organised criminals. "The aim of the working group is to address all the negative aspects, from a law enforcement perspective, resulting from the developments within communication technology," SOCA said. ®