IT staff concern as police block child porn clause

Proposals to give IT professionals a legal defence if they encounter child pornography during the course of their work have been...

Proposals to give IT professionals a legal defence if they encounter child pornography during the course of their work have been thrown into disarray following objections from senior police officers.

The Home Office has withdrawn an amendment to the Sexual Offences Bill designed to protect IT staff, after police branded it a paedophiles’ charter.

Government officials are considering a new amendment that could require IT staff involved in child pornography investigations to prove they were acting legitimately to the satisfaction of a court of law or face a five-year prison sentence.

The move has alarmed ISPs and IT security experts.

“I think reversing the burden of proof places an unnecessary burden on information security professionals,” said Peter Sommer, security expert at the London School of Economics.

Richard Starnes, vice-president of the Information Systems Security Association, said the move would discourage the profession from co-operating with police.

“The only sensible option would be to delete the material, which would not help anyone. Then you could say, it arrived, I did not ask for it, and I am no longer in possession of it. The problem is that the police are going to need to have the evidence preserved.”

The Home Office withdrew the original amendment, which had been broadly welcomed by IT professionals, following concerns raised by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and other bodies last month.

The changes would have granted immunity to IT staff and ISPs if it proved necessary to view or copy images of children to prevent, detect or investigate crime.

But Stuart Hyde, assistant chief constable with the West Midlands Police, who is leading the ACPO work on the Bill, told Home Office officials that the wording would have given too many people an excuse to download illegal images.

“I think there needs to be greater protection for corporates, because at the moment systems administrators are being asked and encouraged to check and monitor abuse,” he said. “And if they start finding things on their servers they need to take action but be protected in some way.

“What I want to do is make sure that the level of protection is correct and does not give paedophiles a charter to go off and do their own thing.”

Options under consideration include:

  • A compulsory code of practice that could give IT staff and ISPs who follow it a legal defence

  • A “halfway house” approach that would require IT staff to show they were acting legitimately, but with a lower standard of legal proof

  • Giving legal exemptions to large companies and ISPs rather than individual IT professionals.

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