Saturday, May 12, 2007

Child Pimp Jailed

A woman called Fiona Walsh was jailed for 10 years by a London court this week. Ms Walsh befriended girls as young as 12, showered them with gifts, got them addicted to crack cocaine and then made them work as prostitutes.

"Five victims told police how Walsh had ruined their lives, although the case against her focused on offences against two girls, aged 12 and 15."

"The 12-year-old had tried hard but failed to give up prostitution and faced a "very uncertain future".

Walsh also "pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing to conspiracy to supply class A substances while on remand in Holloway Prison."

What a charming piece of work. I expect she's had a really tough life though. It's not really her fault. The Evil Patriarchy made her do it. She's actually the victim in this story.

The government still thinks we should abolish women's prisons. Quite right too. What people like Ms Walsh really need is a shoulder to cry on.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Scandal of Operation Ore

This week Operation Ore has been in the news again.

It was discussed on Thursday night’s ‘The Investigation’ on BBC Radio 4. To listen to the program, click here. It is only available for 7 days until Thursday 17th May 2007.

In the 1990s, US law enforcement officers were monitoring a Texas based website called Landslide. Landslide was a portal which provided online payment management services to some 1400 other sites. Most, if not all, of these client sites were providing adult content, or ‘pornography’. Police had identified that precisely 12 of these 1400 or so sites contained images of children. That was apparently the reason for the police interest.

US authorities identified the credit card details of some 7200 UK citizens on the Landslide database, and passed them on to the UK authorities. Thus began Operation Ore. All over the UK, police began breaking down people’s doors at six in the morning. Among those caught in the net were teachers, police officers, a judge, The Who guitarist Pete Townshend, Robert del Naja of Massive Attack, and Ronnie Barker’s son Adam. To date, around 2300 men have been convicted of child pornography related offences.

So what’s the problem?

The problems with Operation Ore were first brought to light by the journalist Duncan Campbell in his in-depth article for the IT trade magazine, PC Pro. Reference

A lot of those convicted were the victims of credit card fraud and identity theft. They were entirely innocent of any child abuse related crime. To date, 39 accused men have committed suicide in the UK. Hundreds, possibly thousands, more, have had their lives, families and careers destroyed.

Ross Anderson, professor of Security Engineering at the University of Cambridge, was called as a defence witness on several cases. He said “Operation Ore I think will go down in history as one of the biggest police scandals in the UK. It’s the worst we’ve had for many years.”

“Police just didn't look far and didn't understand the evidence of wholesale card fraud,"
Anderson said. In many cases, they simply refused to examine the possibility of credit card fraud.

The Radio 4 program included an excerpt from a police briefing in London in 2003. The senior officer tells his men, “What we are talking about here is child abuse. In case some of you haven’t seen what this is, we are talking about the rape of babies. We are talking about the bondage of children aged five years old”. As he rallied the troops, the emotion in his voice was palpable. To some extent this is understandable; we are all horrified by crimes like that. However his personal feelings have no place here. Yet police emotions seem to have taken over. He then proceeded to gloat to his men about the fact that these 'offenders' may not have jobs and families left by the time the police had finished with them. This is an appalling attitude from someone in that position.

Emotional hysteria makes for very bad public policy. It causes witch-hunts. That seems to be what happened here. Again.

It led to thug policing. As far as the police were concerned in Operation Ore, their job was to break down doors and capture monsters. That’s it. They thought they were being heroes.

The real problem the police were facing was a far more abstract one. PC Pro described the case as “the UK's biggest ever IT crime investigation”, and that is exactly what it was. It was primarily an IT issue. The question the police had to answer was ‘How did these UK credit card numbers apparently make their way into a Texas-based computer database?’ This is a task requiring painstaking analysis. Breaking down doors at 6:00 AM is absolutely no use whatsoever.

The method is to first get a copy of the data. Then find some forensic computer experts to analyse it. Then decide whether or not any crimes have taken place. Then – and only then – you might have to break some doors down. It seems that this investigation process was far too much like hard work for the UK police. Breaking doors down is easier and more fun.

The real answer to the problem is going to be relatively complex too. There will not just be a single cause. It is likely that person A’s credit card number is on file because they actually used their card to purchase child pornography; person B’s is there because they are a victim of identity theft and credit card fraud; person C’s is there because of an American police typing error, and in fact it was never there at all. You simply don’t know until you look. But the police couldn’t be bothered to look. They decided they just needed to put the heat on some perverts. Thirty nine innocent men committed suicide.

If the police had taken the trouble to look, they would have found a story even more exciting and macho than the one they had just made up. The truth involved international organised crime, identity theft and money-laundering.

“The child pornography site in question was one of many being used by organised crime, including the Gambino family, to steal money from 54,348 credit cards the details of which their associates had ripped off.” Reference

Organised crime gangs as far afield as South America, Russia and Indonesia set up these websites, and then take out subscriptions to them using stolen credit card numbers. Reference So they make money by taking out fake subscriptions to their own websites using other people’s credit cards.

The UK police could have found these facts out easily just by looking at the Landslide data, but it seems that no-one could stir themselves to take the trouble.

For example, of the 7200 UK citizens who had apparently signed up to this site, around 70% of them had never accessed it. So they had apparently paid for services and then never used them. One person might do that, but 70% of customers? We should immediately be suspicious. Not PC Plod, however. He just alters the charges. Instead of being charged with possession of indecent images of children – because these people clearly weren’t – they were charged with inciting others to provide such images.

The police in the US only charged those people who had actually accessed the material.

Secondly, the Landslide data contained the IP address of the original computer used to make the credit card payment. Many of these UK cards were used from computers in South America, at a time and date when the card-holder was at work in the UK. A cast-iron alibi if ever there was one. But strangely the police would not accept evidence like that. After unsuccessfully trying to prosecute a father who had been defrauded in this way, they instead turned their attention to his son, and tried to prosecute him for the completely unrelated possession of some perfectly legal manga cartoons, which you can buy on Amazon. It was only when the CPS decided that there was no chance of making it stick that PC Plod had to go home red-faced and empty-handed. It seems that the police were completely out of control.

Perhaps the problem was that Operation Ore was being treated as essentially a moral issue; the police were attempting to regulate sexual morality. That and the fact that they were responding to a tabloid frenzy about paedophiles lurking in every British suburb. It seems that the police allowed moral panic to get the better of them. If so then this is a breakdown of discipline and a serious breach of their professional duty.

The consequences of all this have been truly dire. Thousands of people’s lives have been affected. Fathers were separated from their children for two years, and then not charged with anything. Careers, marriages and reputations were destroyed. Thirty nine took their own lives.

Operation Ore was run by CEOP, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. It seems that CEOP is not prepared, even now, to hold its hands up to what it has done. "Jim Gamble, former head of the National Crime Squad who is now head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, said: "Over 90 per cent of those involved pleaded guilty. That's not about credit card fraud." Reference

This is dishonest in the extreme. The police would offer suspects a choice. Confess to the allegations, and receive a caution, and sign the Register for two to five years. Alternatively, deny the allegations and go to trial. One man interviewed on Radio 4 told how the interviewer threatened him, with the tape running, that if he did not confess to the allegations, the police would go to his workplace, tell all his colleagues why he was arrested, and sieze all the computers for examination. Given an ultimatum like that, many people found a false confession to be the easy way out, which is exactly what the police intended.

The radio 4 program did not mention the fact that some of those affected are pursuing a ‘class action’ (to use the American term) against the police. Reference

I hope that those who were put through the ordeal of Operation Ore are compensated; I hope that Jim Gamble is given an opportunity to spend more time with his family; I hope he spends it reflecting on how lucky he is still to have one.

If we are going to learn any lessons from this then surely it is about the folly of moral panic, and its corrosive effect on public life. Unfortunately though, we don't seem to learn our lessons. This stuff just seems to keep on happening.

Further Reading