Police Charged £1m A Year Hunting Online Criminals

A furious row broke out tonight between internet companies and the police after officers revealed they are being charged up to £1 million a year hunting on-line paedophiles and terrorists. Forces are asked to pay as much as to £20 a time to find out who potentially dangerous suspects are and where they live.

Last night a child protection charity attacked the charges, saying: “No-one should be making money out of protecting children”.

The fees paid by police were revealed by Jim Gamble, chief executive of the Child Exploitation and On-Line Protection centre.

They are imposed when police ask an Internet service provider (ISP) to trace the address of someone suspected of carrying out criminal activity.

Mr Gamble disclosed that while some of the major service providers – including BT – carried out the service for nothing, others were not so helpful.

“The question I ask them is why are you charging us to protect your young customers?” he said. “If we have 150 Internet service provider addresses and we need to turn them around we can be charged £7 or £20 a time for that service.”

Sources at the centre added that a daily bill could be as much as £3,000 and revealed that they regularly deal with suspects who have hundreds of potential victims who also need to be traced.

The situation is identical for the 52 police forces in the UK and applies to all types of crime, including terrorism investigations and on-line banking fraud.

Michele Elliott, of children’s charity Kidscape, said: “It’s totally unreasonable to charge people who are trying to protect children.

“The best thing they could do is offer this service for free. It wouldn’t cost them very much and there would be enormous public goodwill.

“I accept that they cannot carry out every request but should carry out free searches for the most serious cases. You cannot make money out of child protection.”

But a spokesman for the Internet Service Providers Association, said that many of its members were too small to waive the charges.

“The law allows us to recover our costs. We are not profiteering,” he said. “By charging, we ensure that the police request is taken seriously and a quick and prompt response is given.

“A lot of the firms simply do not have the manpower to carry out these requests for nothing. Charging also prevents law enforcement agencies going on lengthy and expensive ‘fishing’ expeditions.”

Mr Gamble made his comments at the launch of a powerful new computer system that allows police officers to share information on suspected online paedophiles.

He said the Child Exploitation Tracking System (CETS) will save “time and lives” in the fight against online sex offenders.

It alerts police every time a known or suspected sex offender visits an online site or chatroom. CEOP officers have already been using the system for several months and it will be used to target social networking websites such as MySpace and Bebo.

The crackdown was announced as it also emerged that 744 known US sex offenders had set up pages on MySpace. It is feared that they are using the websites as a “honeypot” to attract and “groom” children.

A spokeswoman for the CEOP said: ‘We are looking closely at MySpace and other social networking sites, and are working with the companies behind these very closely. We will be putting officers online in these sites to monitor the situation there.”

The CETS software will now be piloted by three other police forces across England and Wales – Essex, Dyfed-Powys and West Midlands – and a hi-tech crime unit in Scotland.

In one example, said Mr Gamble, the system had helped three forces to compare information about a suspected paedophile who police believe was grooming 150 children online.

The software also helped investigators identify a paedophile that had been grooming children for ten years by sharing photos over the Internet.

The £4 million programme, developed by computing giant Microsoft, allows investigators to instantly cross-check key pieces of information on suspected offenders, including email addresses and on-line aliases.