Feature Lauri Love was arrested on suspicion of offences under the Computer Misuse Act 1990 early in the evening of 25 October 2013, when a National Crime Agency officer wearing dungarees and posing as a UPS courier told Love's mother that Lauri himself had to come to the porch to collect his delivery.
In his dressing gown and pyjamas, Love confirmed his identity and was then informed of the ruse and handcuffed. Over the next five hours a total of 14 NCA officers attended the property wearing agency-branded windbreakers, which were easy visible to the neighbours.
Six of these officers had been tasked with searching for digital media which are alleged to contain evidence that the 28-year-old had criminally accessed private sector, military and government computer systems in the United States.
The agency believed their courier ruse had been necessary because, they claimed, intelligence had suggested that Love's computer equipment could be encrypted “at the press of a button” which, if activated, would “frustrate the object of the search,” though even with this successfully executed approach the officers still collected encrypted devices.
Love's parents expressed concerns when their work computers were taken along with Love's own property, but claimed they were assured these would be returned within 21 days. It would actually be 96 days later that their equipment was returned, though in a document responding to complaints made during this period, the NCA denied that any such assurances would have been given, stating that “all officers at the scene were experienced Cyber investigators [who] would know the length of time it takes to forensically examine computers and other digital equipment”.
The suspect, aged 28 at the time, remained handcuffed in the porch while the terms of the search were explained to his father Alexander, a prison minister from Glasgow, though Love recalled at some point being moved further into the house where NCA officers – whom he described as being commendably courteous – spoke to him, cautioned him, and tried to make conversation.
Love would eventually arrive at the police station around midnight. After being processed he went to his cell in some anxiety, which he says he attempted to alleviate by exercising, annotating what had happened and finally getting a bit of sleep. The next morning he was given a police ready-meal for breakfast and afforded a consultation with the duty solicitor who considered a no comment interview appropriate for the charges he was faced with, although more than 30 months later those have still not materialised.
NCA technical experts listened in to his official interview, but Love was bailed without charge by early Saturday afternoon. Before he was released, an NCA representative attempted to suggest bail conditions to the custody sergeant, including the surrender of Love's passport – which Love's parents were required to hand over before driving him home – and encouraged the custody sergeant to prohibit Love from using the internet, though as he had no history of criminality this was rejected.
Yet the NCA pressed for more conditions and achieved one prohibiting Love from accessing the internet via “a third party”. Love sought clarification on what was intended by this and was told that it was meant to ban him from using proxy services, including VPNs or Tor – seemingly anything which would allow him to circumvent NCA access to his communications through RIPA – and was not intended to prevent him from using ISPs.
'Different reporting restrictions'
On the Monday after Love's arrest, the news was dominated by four deaths resulting from an autumn storm which had left more than half a million homes without power. Very strong winds had toppled trees across the south of England that morning, in one instance crushing a caravan where a 17-year-old girl was sleeping, while in Hounslow a fallen tree was suspected to have led to a gas explosion where a man and woman were killed when their house collapsed.
Love was lying face down on his bed and listening to Radio 4 when he heard the announcer report that the son of a vicar in Suffolk had been charged with computer offences. Love had, in fact, been released on police bail without charge, but his family had been told that no personal information regarding him would be released to the media. That this promise had not been kept was of more concern than the inaccurate news bulletin.
Over the next week the Love household would be doorstepped by journalists from Britain, America and Finland. Love's name and photograph, alongside pictures of the front of his house, would be published by the media. This distressed Love's parents, whose employment at a nearby prison meant inmates were not supposed to know their home address.
In the weeks prior to Love's arrest, the NCA claimed a press strategy had been agreed between its National Cyber Crime Unit (NCCU), the Crown Prosecution Service, and the Department of Justice in the US. “It is the NCA's policy not to name those arrested, this was the agreed strategy,” stated Mark Kerr, part of the agency's professional standards unit, in his response to the Loves' complaints.
Indeed, emails and documents exchanged between the NCA and the United States Attorney's office during the finalisation of the co-ordinated press announcements feature a senior agency manager claiming that identification of Love would “have disastrous effects on any potential prosecution in the UK”.
According to Kerr it was “very apparent that the US has different reporting restrictions to that of the UK,” and the Americans' press release identifying Lauri “caused concern within the NCA” as it posed challenges to the agency's “duty of care” in regards to the Loves. Contact was made with the local police force and the NCA community liaison officer, as well as an attempt to directly inform the Loves of the release.
“Unfortunately prior to the contact with yourself,” wrote Kerr, “a number of journalists had already attended your home, in fact Love had already given an interview to a journalist.” Love himself remembers this not as a formal interview but as responding to a journalist who had intercepted him between his bus home and the front door.
Kerr determined that the identification of Love had happened on the US side of the arrest activities, and as such the Loves' complaint against the NCA was “not upheld with no case to answer.”
The agency's decision to shrug its shoulders in response to the intense public attention on the Loves is typical of how Britain ignores its responsibilities in favour of American interests, Love's supporters have claimed. They believe this has been highlighted by the UK-US Extradition Treaty of 2003 – under which the UK was attempting to hand Love over to US prosecutors without charges ever being laid over here.
Equipment and extradition
More than five months before his arrest Love had been indicted in a filing to a New Jersey district court (PDF) alleging he, alongside three unidentified co-conspirators – two listed as residing near Australia and one near Sweden – “carried out a series of cyber attacks against the websites and computer systems of the United States Army.”
While in England these allegations would be prosecuted before a single court on a single indictment, in the US the three indictments would require three separate court hearings. They have also led to three extradition requests which were eventually executed on 24 and 25 July, 2015. Between these three indictments Love faced charges with a maximum sentence of 99 years, and damages he has calculated as hitting a maximum of $10m.
Love, who is now 31 years old, was sought by the US for his alleged involvement in #OpLastResort, online protests that followed the suicide of activist Aaron Swartz, whom federal prosecutors had threatened with 35 years in prison and damages of $1m.
The National Crime Agency says it was made aware of the FBI's activities regarding Love just before noon on the day of his arrest, though it had executed a search warrant issued by Westminster Magistrates' Court as part of its own investigation the day before. Eventually some of the equipment it would seize on the day of arrest would be returned to the Loves on 29 January 2014, alongside a Section 49 notice under RIPA which compelled Love to provide the decryption keys to digital material the NCA was unable to access.
Love responded that he could not remember the decryption keys and so had no information to disclose under the notice. Although the burden of proof lies with Love, he was not charged with non-compliance with the decryption notice, which is an offence under Section 53 of RIPA, but instead was subsequently bailed with a notification that this did not amount to “no further action” and “that the NCA investigation remained very much alive”.
Following the execution of the extradition requests, however, Love would again be arrested – this time while preparing a holiday to visit family in Finland – by the extradition and international assistance unit of the Metropolitan Police, which sits under its Specialist, Organised & Economic Crime command. After being bailed, Love offered to cooperate with the NCA's Section 49 request but asked for his computers to help him attempt to recall the passwords. This was declined by the agency, which believed there was too great a risk to loss of evidence – despite the feasibility of using disk imaging technology to preserve copies of Love's device's drives.
Faced with this extended period without either his computers or any domestic charges, Love made a civil claim against the NCA to have his property returned under the Police (Property) Act of 1897. The NCA responded to this by making an application under the same law to force Love to decrypt his devices.
The NCA's claim was heard on 10 May 2016, when District Judge Nina Tempia – who also presided over the latest extradition hearing – explicitly refused the NCA's application because, as she put it, the agency was trying to use the case management powers of the court “to circumvent specific legislation that has been passed in order to deal with the disclosure sought”.
A substantive hearing on Love's application to recover his equipment is scheduled to take place a month from now, on 28 July. ®