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 Posted Thursday, May 27, 1999

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Police will have 24-hour access to secret files, reports Stewart Tendler

The Times
London, May 27, 1999

E-mail code-busters to join crime fight

A 24-HOUR technical centre to help to crack secret Internet and e-mail systems used by criminals is being set up by the computer industry and the police.

The centre will open encrypted messages for officers who have a warrant. If the codes cannot be cracked it will call in computer specialists.

Ministers are also introducing laws giving police and Customs investigators powers to order Internet operators to unlock encrypted systems for taps. Users could also be forced to hand over codes protecting information.

The plans were announced yesterday as ministers released a report by the Cabinet Office's Performance and Innovation Unit on the problems of encryption and police investigations.

The report revealed that telephones taps last year led to the seizure of three tonnes of heroin and cocaine and the arrest of 1,200 criminals.

Underlining that interceptions have become an "essential tool" the report said that one suspect involved in serious crime was arrested for every two warrants issued by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary.

Interceptions became vital when intelligence could not be obtained by surveillance or informants. In 1996-97 the taps resulted in the seizure of 450 guns and 112 tonnes of drugs, such as cannabis, worth £600 million.

Looking at ways of dealing with the rise of encryption programmes for e-mail and telephone systems, the report found that although there was general public acceptance of current telephone taps there was strong aversion in some areas to secret police access to the Internet.

The Government has already ruled out creating an authority which would hold the "keys" to encrypted systems sold by licensed firms and allow access to investigators. The report concluded that such a plan would be unwieldy and still would not give police enough access.

Yesterday Mr Straw said the plans showed that government and industry could work together. The aim was to develop the use of the Internet for commerce without encouraging or helping crime.

Case histories released yesterday show how terrorists and paedophiles are already using encryption and slowing or halting investigations.

In 1995 two men were arrested in the Home Counties and accused of being at the centre of a ring putting out child pornography. Detectives believed that encrypted material had been sent worldwide. The men were later jailed but 10 per cent of the material was never uncovered. Last year police investigating sex and attempted murder allegations found encrypted material on a suspect's computer. They finally cracked the code when they discovered the decryption key among other material.

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