An “historic” agreement on sharing data will “dramatically speed up” investigations into criminals’ online activity, Home Secretary Priti Patel has said.
Priti Patel and US attorney general William Barr signed the arrangement – the first of its kind – on Thursday evening when she visited Washington DC, the Home Office said.
Ms Patel said: “Terrorists and paedophiles continue to exploit the internet to spread their messages of hate, plan attacks on our citizens and target the most vulnerable.
“This historic agreement will dramatically speed up investigations, allowing our law enforcement agencies to protect the public.
“This is just one example of the enduring security partnership we have with the US and I look forward to continuing to work with them and global partners to tackle these heinous crimes.”
The reciprocal agreement means law enforcement bodies could demand terrorists’ and child abusers’ electronic data directly from technology companies based in either country.
However Facebook’s encryption proposals could limit what law enforcement could access under the agreement. The agreement does not stop companies from encrypting data. See our story here.
The current process can take up to two years and requires requests are made through governments. But the agreement promises to “dramatically speed up” the process, reducing the waiting time to weeks or even days while ensuring “proper oversight and privacy” is maintained.
The move was welcomed by campaigners and police.
The case of one of Britain’s most prolific paedophiles – who blackmailed a string of vulnerable victims including a girl who was ordered to eat dog food – was among those which highlighted the need to speed up investigations, the Home Office said.
“Manipulative and cruel” university lecturer Dr Matthew Falder wanted “total control” of his vulnerable victims and was jailed for 32 years.
He admitted 137 offences, including voyeurism, encouraging child rape, and sharing images showing the abuse of a newborn baby, after being caught by an international inquiry led by the National Crime Agency (NCA).
The 29-year-old Cambridge graduate was arrested in June last year after four traumatised victims, who were tricked into sending him humiliating images, threatened or attempted to end their own lives.
Online data helped identify victims but police had a long wait to access content because of the complex process – with UK officers having to spend at least a year trying to satisfy US legal criteria. Instead information had to be obtained from victims directly which would have been traumatising, took longer and may have resulted in less evidence being obtained, the Home Office said.
Tony Stower, the NSPCC’s head of child safety online said the agreement should be a “hugely important step forward in tackling online child abuse – if tech giants play their part too”.
The Internet Watch Foundation’s chief executive Susie Hargreaves said the agreement was “commendable”.
Rob Jones, director of threat leadership at the National Crime Agency (NCA), said: “We really welcome the agreement.
“The NCA investigates some of the highest-harm offenders, including very dangerous paedophiles, who pose an immediate, severe and ongoing risk.
“Obtaining data quickly is critical to identifying, arresting and convicting offenders and protecting the public.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, Chief Constable Simon Bailey, said: “Technology advances have given criminals easy ways to target and groom children and vulnerable people online and so quick access to their communications is vital.
“This evidence can help us secure prosecutions but more importantly, find victims and end their exploitation. I welcome this agreement as will law enforcement colleagues around the country.”
UK police will be able to request information from US technology companies and vice versa.
The requests have to be made in line with either country’s laws and would be subject to review by a court, judge or other independent authorities – as well as face scrutiny from both the UK Parliament and US Congress.
The UK has “obtained assurances which are in line with the Government’s continued opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances”, the Home Office added.
The agreement gives effect to the Crime (Overseas Production Orders) Act 2019, which was formally approved in February and was brought about by the CLOUD Act in America, passed last year.