Police can now hack into home computers without a warrant, as the European Union (EU) continues to increase states’ power to tackle electronic crime.
Officers are allowed to hack into personal hard drives remotely, using either malware contained in an email, a wireless network outside a house, or a device attached to a computer that records the user’s activity. The hacking methods will be used to combat criminals using the web, such as identity thieves and terrorists.
But Peter Sommer, a professor in information systems at the London School of Economics, said that the powers have been in place since 2000 in the UK. The latest developments from the EU, he said, are to ensure other European countries have similar legislation in place.
“This is nothing very new,” he said. “It’s done under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers act, which has been in place since 2000.”
Civil liberties campaigners say the methods are “intrusive”. Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, said, “These are very intrusive powers - as intrusive as someone busting down your door and coming into your home. The public will want this to be controlled by new legislation and judicial authorisation. Without those safeguards it's a devastating blow to any notion of personal privacy.”
The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) said safeguards are in place to ensure the powers are only used in suitable situations.
A spokesman said, “The framework under which any form of intrusive surveillance can take place is closely governed under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
“What the EU refers to as ‘remote searches’ would fall into this category and require authorisation from a chief constable and prior approval (except in an emergency) from an intelligence commissioner and where appropriate, under agreed published criteria, prior approval would be sought from the Surveillance Commissioner.”
Professor Sommer said the powers are used relatively rarely, because the device required to give remote access can be spotted by anti-virus software, alerting the suspect. Evidence gathered by remote hacking is also vulnerable to challenge, because it can’t be tested and “contaminates” the target computer.
“All of these can be overcome with great care on the part of the investigators, but it is a risk which police will want to assess carefully,” he said.
A spokesman for the Home Office said, “The UK has agreed to a strategic approach towards tackling cyber crime on the same basis as all member states.
“We fully support work to develop an understanding of the scale and impact of electronic crime across the EU.”