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The British government has announced it will cooperate with a European Community (EC) mandate established last November to enhance police powers to ‘conduct remote searches of computers’.

As ZDNet’s Tom Espiner reports, “The [UK] Home Office said on Monday that it has decided to participate in the further formulation of the European Parliament plans, but that no timetable or detail for the proposals had been settled.”

In what may come as a shocking surprise to some UK computer users, it appears that police have had limited hacking powers for some time already:

“According to Richard Clayton, a Cambridge University computer security expert, it has been legal for the police to hack into suspect systems without a warrant since 1995, when a 1994 amendment of the Computer Misuse Act was brought into force. Remote warrantless searches of computers are also legal under part three of the Police Act [of] 1995, and under parts of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act [of] 2000.”

Given the go-ahead by UK lawmakers, police won’t have a great deal of difficulty eavesdropping on suspected criminals via off-the-shelf technology:

“…The most likely method for UK police to hack into computers [would be] to enter a premises and install a keylogger on the target system. This would be more reliable than a drive-by download or ‘sending an email with a dodgy attachment’, as the chances of successful interception of data were higher. … Alternatively, police could hack WiFi networks to gain access to systems.”

Predictably, privacy watchdogs are calling on the British government to ensure that all requests by police to conduct ‘official’ hacking operations are subject to judicial oversight. Simon Davies, Director of Privacy International, warned that Internet interception is far more intrusive than telephone interception, which is already routinely used by police in criminal investigations.

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