Oversight of hacking power and take down order
The Dutch Computer Crime Act III brings with it far-reaching powers for law enforcement authorities, such as the power to hack computers and take down websites. More oversight is required to check the lawful application of these instruments.
The Computer Crime Act III is now under consideration for approval by the Dutch Senate. The act extends the criminalisation of certain behaviour, such as grooming of persons that appear to be 18 year old and younger, the unauthorised gathering of non-public data and offering that stolen data online. Perhaps more importantly, the Computer Crime Act III authorises Dutch law enforcement authorities, with permission from an investigative judge, to make content containing serious crimes inaccessible (such as child abuse materials or jihadist propaganda) and to access computers remotely for evidence gathering purposes (a so-called hacking power).
The proposed power to hack computers seeks to provide a solution to the increasing challenges of anonymity, encryption and cloud computing in cybercrime investigations. By using this special investigative power, law enforcement officials can access computers remotely and gather evidence at its source, thereby circumventing problems such as the encryption of data. The instrument can only be used under the most stringent conditions, such as a warrant from an investigative judge and a limitation to serious crimes.
After law enforcement officials gain remote access to a computer system, they can be authorised to observe the behaviour of a person by turning on a GPS signal, microphone or video camera. Law enforcement officials can also remotely copy relevant data for evidence purposes in a criminal investigation. A particularly far-reaching power is to make a computer or data inaccessible. This may result in disabling a botnet infrastructure or encrypting child abuse images remotely.
Take down order
The proposed take down order provides an instrument for law enforcement authorities to make web content inaccessible. If online service providers or individuals publishing criminal materials do not disable the content voluntarily, a takedown order can be issued. Fortunately, the use of the instrument is restricted to serious crimes and a warrant from a judge is required. However, the take down order can go as far as ordering a hosting provider to take down a particular website (when possible) and even compelling an internet access provider to disable content. This last application of a takedown order boils down to an internet filter. Does this leave us in a few year with a black list of websites that must be filtered by Dutch internet access providers?
In my article about the Computer Crime Act III (in Dutch), I discuss the changes the act will bring to the Dutch Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure. Although I do acknowledge the necessity of hacking as an investigative power to gather evidence in criminal investigations involving serious crimes, I worry about the proposed powers to make computers or data accessible.
The problem is that the cybercriminals behind this criminal behaviour often reside on foreign territory and hide behind anonymisation techniques. These cybercriminals will often not be tried in a Dutch court. I wonder how many times a botnet will be disrupted by taking it down, or websites will be shut down or even filtered, without a trial during which a judge can determine whether those acts by law enforcement officials were conducted lawfully.
Therefore, I argued (and with me some Members of Parliament, scholars and several civil rights organisations) that we need an independent supervisory authority. This authority, perhaps modelled on the UK Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office, should be issued with the task of overseeing the legitimacy of operations involving these far-reaching special investigative powers. It is not likely such an authority will be created as part of the Computer Crime Act III, but perhaps the new Dutch cabinet should consider legislation to create such an authority.