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Cyber cops open shop

National Hi-Tech Crime Unit comes online

After its shy coming out last month, the UK's first national law enforcement organisation dedicated to fighting IT-related crime was launched yesterday.

But some privacy and justice commentators are worried the unit's remit may step on budding internet rights.

The NHTCU's (National Hi-Tech Crime Unit) 80 law enforcement specialists are drawn from law enforcement agencies across the country, such as Customs and Excise and the National Criminal Intelligence Service. It is to be headed by National Crime Squad Detective Chief Superintendent Len Hynds.

London's Metropolitan Police, based at New Scotland Yard, has had a computer crime unit in place since 1984. However, the unit only covers London. The NHTCU's remit is nationwide.

The NHTCU's primary task will be to detect and investigate crime committed through the use of IT in conjunction with local police forces. A secondary goal is to find out the extent of internet and computer-related crime.

But some observers are highly sceptical of the government's initiative, arguing the NHTCU's brief is too wide. Law enforcement should not use criminal activity on the internet as an excuse to control the medium and hamper individual privacy, opponents contend.

"I haven't been convinced that there is a substantial need for this unit," said Yaman Akdeniz, director of the non-profit Cyber-Rights and Cyber Liberties organisation. "I believe child pornography is a serious crime, but it is not an internet-specific problem."

Lars Davies, lecturer at the Centre for Commercial Law studies at the University of London, agreed.

"There is no such thing as online crime. There is crime full stop," said Davies, adding that a criminal offence like hacking, while done on a computer, is still a crime.

"Paedophilia is a horrific crime, but it must not be used as an excuse to give [the police] extra control over a medium," Davies said. He said his main concern about the new police unit is individuals' privacy.

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