In the Media

Police seek new powers to prevent paedophiles hiding data

PUBLISHED June 12, 2006

THE Government is proposing new penalties to stop terrorists and other criminals using technology that prevents police accessing information on a suspect?s computer.

Senior police officers have warned ministers that their investigations into serious crime are being thwarted by safety technology, which conceals data held on computers. Terrorists and paedophiles are using devices available on the internet for as little as ?20 to keep data on their computers hidden from the authorities. 
The encryption technology is being used by ?terrorists and criminals to facilitate and conceal evidence of their unlawful conduct so as to evade detection or prosecution?, according to a Home Office consultation paper.

Encryption enables plain text to be turned into a non- readable form. The person who receives the encrypted text uses a ?key?, or password, to return it to its original form. By refusing to disclose that to police, suspects can conceal any criminal behaviour.

The consultation paper said: ?Over the last two to three years, investigators have begun encountering encrypted and protected data with increasing frequency.?

The Home Office is planning to introduce powers that will require a person to turn encrypted information into a readable form, and is proposing harsher penalties for those suspected of child sex abuse.

Under the current law a person suspected of possessing indecent photographs of children faces only two years in prison for failing to disclose to police the key to encrypted material. But they could spend up to ten years in prison for possessing the indecent image.

Police say that the low maximum jail term for failing to hand over the key provides an incentive to plead guilty to that offence as, with early release, the suspect could be free after a year.

In terrorism cases failure to hand over a key carries a maximum of five years in jail ? a sentence that some in the Home Office say should apply in child abuse cases.

David Davis, the Shadow Home Secretary, said that he welcomed the consultation paper on increasing the sentence. He said: ?What the criminal is trying to do by using this encryption is to avoid the full sentence. In essence, the failure to provide the encryption key is an admission of guilt.?

Ray Wyre, a child protection expert, said: ?If people really intend to get away with it then the move to encryption was always going to be the next issue for the police and government?.

He said that police used software known as Encase, which allowed them to look at images on the computer, but with encryption they are unable to access the data. ?In technology the offender has always been ahead of the police.

?Encryption is a problem for the police because, if you cannot access the data, you cannot find out the extent of a person?s criminality or the danger they pose to society.?

Margaret Moran, the Labour MP for Luton South, cautioned that the development of encryption would provide further opportunities for criminals. She told MPs when the Sexual Offences Act was being debated: ?The concern is that the advent of strong encryption technologies gives criminals the opportunity to hide their criminal activities or to conceal other evidence.

?If a paedophile has on his computer files, e-mail messages, pictures or other material that discloses a serious sexual offence against a child ? an offence for which he knows he could face a prison term of ten years or more ? he could encrypt the lot and, if investigated by police, simply refuse to hand over the key to decrypt the files, thus making unavailable evidence of a serious offence.?

Until the internet was invented, encryption was rarely used by the public. Encryption garbles data using irreversible mathematical functions. It is the encoding of data so that it cannot be read by anyone who does not know the password that decodes it.