Mike Barton

Asserting internet sovereignty would help fight crime, says UK police chief

Image credit: Durham Constabulary

Comments by Mike Barton, one of the UK's most senior police leaders, in an interview with E&T, will reignite the debate around balancing freedom of speech with the need to combat harassment, stalking and other offences.

Nation states should consider “reasserting sovereignty” over the internet to help combat cybercrime, one of the UK’s top police officers has said in a wide-ranging interview with E&T, in which he also castigated internet libertarians as being akin to the American gun lobby and voiced his concerns about end-to-end encryption.

Mike Barton, the National Police Chiefs Council’s lead for crime operations, suggested “blind acceptance” of blurred national boundaries had occurred in tandem with the rise of the web – a globalist trend he said was undermining the enforcement of national laws and thwarting some police investigations.

The chief constable of Durham Constabulary, whose force’s website describes him as being “in the vanguard” of tackling crime on the internet, told E&T: “I think the concept of the World Wide Web without frontiers needs to be challenged.”

He added: “My point is it is perfectly possible for nation states to reassert their sovereignty. One of the biggest problems police forces have when investigating the internet is its international nature.

“Generally, in the past, our international criminal inquiries have been major drug importations, counter-terrorism, major league criminals and murderers on the run. One could throw resources at that and time wasn’t an issue because time limits wouldn’t run out, whereas an awful lot of the offences we are talking about now on the internet are just summary only. You’ve got a six-month time limit for prosecutions.”

Barton, who has a reputation for straight talking, is often “described as a maverick”, Durham Constabulary's website itself states. He has certainly not been shy about venting his frustration with Silicon Valley firms over their alleged lackadaisical attitude towards cutting crime facilitated via their platforms.

He has previously said his officers have to deal with vast numbers of cases of social media bullying, harassment and stalking daily. The likes of Twitter and Facebook should take a much tougher line, freely booting people off their platforms and placing greater emphasis on safety rather than free speech, he believes. Web firms have “riches beyond our ken” and should plough money into compensating for social harm spread by their technology, he told E&T.

His latest comments - which are likely to reignite the age-old debate about the balance between freedom and security - come as Facebook said it was investing £1m into helping pupils in UK secondary schools learn about how best to deal with cyber bullying and other types of behaviour ranging from the merely anti-social to the seriously criminal.

Barton said that, while a good working relationship had been forged between specialist units like the Metropolitan Police’s parliamentary liaison team and social media firms, the “vast majority of officers” found it was “pretty much impossible” to make even preliminary enquiries with these firms as part of criminal investigations because they were so “remote” and had not seen fit to put enough money into liaison work with more localised law enforcement agencies.

Referencing Transport for London’s decision last month to strip Uber of its licence as well as government moves that could lead to social media giants finally being reclassified as publishers, Barton said he was “just one of the people throwing a pebble into the lake” by challenging apparently amoral behaviour of web giants, adding that such matters were ultimately for Parliament to decide about.

“Generally, my frustration is that the people in Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and wherever it is are just remote and don’t respond to what would appear to be reasonable requests,” he said. “If someone is in a supermarket, they don’t expect police officers to patrol the aisles to make sure people aren’t stealing and if they started insisting on that then they’d be told to sling their hook. And yet, that seems to be what Twitter and Facebook are expecting the police to do.

“At least in practice that’s what’s happening because Twitter and Facebook aren’t actually dealing with those wrinkles that appear on their sites.”

He added: “I don’t think they care enough. The reason why they’ve proliferated and are such huge companies is they’ve played at the edge of what is allowed. For example, anybody who publishes data, let’s say a newspaper or publisher, will spend vast amounts of time on lawyers to make sure they don’t breach the libel laws on defamation. They [social media firms] don’t.”

In conversation with members of the Crime Reporters Association earlier this year, Barton said using social media should be regarded as “a privilege not a right”, adding, “It’s not breaching someone’s human rights to say you can’t use Twitter.”

The micro-blogging site was accused of not bothering to respond to Barton after he wrote to its then boss Dick Costolo three years ago complaining about what he regards as insufficient moves by the company to aid UK police. Since then, Nick Pickles, Twitter’s UK head of public policy and government, has been in touch to schedule a meeting with him.  

“If it takes you three years to get the identity of the person who owns a Twitter account because you’ve got to go to an American jurisdiction to find that out, then the entire teeth of your legislative framework are removed,” Barton said.

He added: “If a company has got a footprint in a computer in this country, then we should draft legislation that makes sure that we then can police and enforce laws against it here.’”

The concept of “cyber sovereignty” has previously been advanced by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has called for greater acceptance of the idea that nations have the right to control and regulate the internet throughout the territories that they govern. Delegates at the World Internet Conference in China were told earlier this year that, since the web is a reflection of “physical space”, it should be treated as sovereign territory and should not be the object of “foreign interference”.

Russia last year passed a law to compel internet sites that store the personal data of Russian citizens to always do so on servers inside the country – something Moscow says is needed for data protection, but which critics view as part of a Kremlin-led assault on freedoms.

However, internet privacy campaigners have welcomed similarly anti-globalist privacy rules put in place by the European Union. The bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation – which the British government has confirmed will apply in the UK despite Brexit – has been seen by many as a move to bring gung-ho American tech firms to heel in Europe.

Barton characterised as libertarians some of those most vociferously championing complete internet freedom and criticised anonymity in the form of the ‘dark web’, end-to-end encryption and technology that allows for the easy exchange of material that can potentially result in very serious crimes.

Of some of the champions of end-to-end encryption, he said: “They’re the same people who still want people to have automatic weapons in America. They say it’s a human rights issue. My argument is it’s a human rights issue for people to be able to go to a concert and to go home alive.”

The ‘dark web’ is beloved by dealers of guns, drugs and child pornography. Earlier this month, E&T revealed how detectives at a pan-European policing agency are increasingly using facial recognition-type software and artificial intelligence to try and safeguard children and apprehend paedophiles who relish the secrecy afforded to them by Tor [‘The Onion Router’, which makes possible the anonymity of the ‘dark web’] and encryption apps like Telegram and WhatsApp.

Algorithm-based analysis of the patterns of blood veins on a sex offender’s hand or genitals – sometimes the only parts of their bodies visible in horrific child abuse images circulated using encryption – is understood to have helped detectives identify certain prolific offenders. However, since child victims are often located in countries far from Europe’s shores, it is unknown how many have been saved thanks to this technology.

Europol is currently carrying out a confidential study to quantify for the first time the benefits of anti-paedophile software developed to try and counter encryption. Police-run honeypot websites and deployment of officers to pose as children in chat rooms are increasingly part of routine law enforcement strategies.

Defenders of end-to-end encryption regularly assert that it would be impossible to create “backdoors” for the police and security services to use without also making app users vulnerable to criminals and foreign spy agencies. 

Barton said: The dark web’ and Tor, they were all invented by people. They were designed by people. We can always design ways of actually dealing with those people [the criminals].

He added: “One can legislate to say you can’t have end-to-end encryption. One could legislate to say you can only do this, that and the other with it.

He acknowledged such a change was “not going to be straightforward”, but he argued the emphasis should not constantly be placed on the rights of customers who use end-to-end encryption, saying companies offering such apps needed to accept that terrorists were among their frequent customers.

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