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The Joint Operations Cell (JOC), based in Warrington, brings together officers from the two agencies to focus initially on tackling online child sexual exploitation.
GCHQ director Robert Hannigan said the unit will increase the ability to identify and stop serious criminals, as well as those involved in child sexual exploitation and abuse online.
“This is a challenging task as we must detect them while they attempt to hide in the mass of data. We are committed to ensuring no part of the internet, including the dark web, can be used with impunity by criminals to conduct their illegal acts,” he said.
NCA director Keith Bristow said the explosion in online communication channels has significantly expanded the means by which criminals can share information, target victims and plan crimes including the sexual exploitation of children.
“The JOC is a genuinely innovative development, using the best of our respective agencies’ skills to tackle the most complex cases and the most dangerous offenders online,” he said.
In November 2013, prime minister David Cameron said UK and US intelligence agencies will help fight child abuse images on the dark web that is inaccessible to search engines.
In December 2014, he announced plans to create the JOC at the We Protect Children Online Global Summit.
Cameron said the JOC would use all the techniques and expertise used to track down terrorists to track down paedophiles as well.
He described online exploitation of children as a “major international crime” that is happening on an almost industrial scale. “There are networks spanning the world, children abused to order,” he said.
News that the JOC is operational comes just days after the home secretary, Theresa May, unveiled the draft Investigatory Powers Bill, which aims to revamp the law governing how the government, police and spy agencies may tap into people’s internet traffic.
The bill includes a provision for communications service providers to retain records of what websites internet users have visited, and provide access to their equipment for accessing communications under equipment interference warrants, which will need to be authorised by a judicial commissioner.
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