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UK Lauches Its Own FBI: The NCA

UK Lauches Its Own FBI: The NCA
UK Lauches Its Own FBI: The NCA

The new National Crime Agency (NCA) seems closely modeled on its US FBI counterpart, with publicity photos showing heavily armed (Glocks and tasers), flak-jacket sporting officers with the letters 'NCA' blazoned across their backs. Keith Bristow, first director-general of the NCA, told the Daily Mail, "I want criminals to fear coming to our attention. When our officers arrest them, I want the bottom to drop out of their world..."

The NCA largely takes over the role of the Serious Organized Crime Agency (Soca), including its responsibility for child exploitation via CEOP, plus some parts of the border agency, and cyber crime. But while Soca was heavily criticized for being secretive, the NCA has promised to be 'transparent.'

Big Brother Watch (BBW) questions whether this is possible when it has an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act. "Considering the Agency will have highly intrusive surveillance techniques at its disposal, it is remarkable that it is allowed to be able to use them behind a cloak of secrecy," it warns.

Those surveillance techniques include, according to the Mail, "An astonishing array of high-tech digital tools and CCTV cameras using face-recognition software", and a high tech intelligence hub taking data from every police force, "and from the Security Services, MI5 and MI6." 

Bristow also told the Mail that 2,000 officers have been trained in using the internet as an investigative tool, "and in probing the ‘dark web’ favoured by criminals." What isn't clear is whether this will include access to the offensive probing of Tor undertaken by GCHQ and the NSA as outlined in the Guardian's latest Snowden leaks. The FBI works closely with the NSA, so it seems likely that the NCA will work closely with GCHQ on its cyber investigations.

This is something that concerns BBW. "The NCA will also have its own capability to intercept communications and will work closely with GCHQ. Our concerns regarding the NCA’s capability to intercept communications echoes the concerns that we have raised in taking legal action against GCHQ."

But the NCA's and Bristow's first major battle may not be with organized crime nor even organized liberty groups – but with home secretary Theresa May, to whom it reports. May is believed to be considering the UK's withdrawal from Europol. Both the police forces and the NCA consider membership of Europol essential for successfully fighting international organized crime – but UK ministers are concerned that proposed reforms could force Britain into greater data sharing. Given that much of Britain's 'criminal' data comes from the secretive combined operations of GCHQ and America's NSA, this is not an easy option.

Asked if he had lobbied May to stay in Europol, Bristow said, "I have made the case for staying in Europol... One of the key capabilities Europol gives us is the ability to share and assess intelligence. If we did not have that capability through Europol we absolutely would need it through another sort of approach."

It is possible, however, that the home secretary will conclude that the international electronic data available from GCHQ and by extension the other Five Eyes members (including the NSA) might be more important than the data it would get from Europol.

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