The National Crime Agency is soon to celebrate its first full year in operation, and the results so far show that this could become a key element in the fight against digital crime in the UK. A few months ago we reported how the NCA, which includes the police’s Cyber Crime Unit, took part in an international, coordinated operation with the FBI and other agencies across Europe to bring down the creators of the Blackshades malware, which was being used to hijack computers and blackmail their owners. Now after a six month UK-wide operation the NCA has announced the arrests of 660 suspected paedophiles.
In a statement the agency revealed: ‘The operation targeted people accessing indecent images of children online. It has stayed covert till today in order to protect children, identify offenders and secure evidence. The NCA and its partners are not revealing the methods they used to track down suspects so that they can use the same tactics again in the future.’
Since its inception the NCA has used the collaborative power of regional and international police forces to accomplish its goals. The digital age has made this far easier, with the interchange of information and ability to analyse trends making law enforcement a truly modern affair, but conversely it has also given criminals more and more powerful weapons to use against their victims.The Cyber Crime unit itself is reported to have around four thousand specially trained intelligence officers who wage war on the variety of attacks that take place on a daily basis.
Tracking down the paedophile suspects isn’t simply a case of monitoring Google searches results for keywords. Child pornography is heavily monitored by search engines due to its criminal nature, and after David Cameron pushed for even stricter filtering last year both Google and Microsoft either delete images from searches or display warning messages at the top of any returns that might include the horrific scenes.
To find their evil fix, paedophiles are known to use encrypted private forums or head to the Dark Web, a sub-level of the internet akin to the dark alleyways where anything can be bought for a price. The Cyber Crime unit have be known to seek their prey in these shadowy corners of the web, infiltrating forums, and famously cracking the Tor browser - which previously afforded anonymity for its users - while involved in the breaking up of the Silk Road website that sold drugs, weapons, and various other illegal substances.
It’s an ongoing battle, that will only intensify while these arrests continue to threaten the profits of criminal activities. As encryption technologies change and the perpetrators, some of which are essentially the digital arm of organised crime, adapt their methods to evade detection, the job of the Cyber Crime unit will increase in its complexity. This recent victory though has been hailed as a hugely significant operation, with the NCA confirming that its actions had safeguarded over four hundred children.
‘This is the first time the UK has had the capability to coordinate a single targeted operation of this nature,’ said NCA Deputy Director General Phil Gormley. ‘Some of the people who start by accessing indecent images online go on to abuse children directly. So the operation is not only about catching people who have already offended – it is about influencing potential offenders before they cross that line. We want those offenders to know that the internet is not a safe anonymous space for accessing indecent images, that they leave a digital footprint, and that law enforcement will find it.’