It is a common misconception that the police or other law enforcement agencies do not – or cannot – know what we are looking at online. People believe that they can hide behind their computers; that the online world affords them an anonymity that does not necessarily exist in the ‘real world’. The reality, however, is that this is not the case. There are various ways that enforcement agencies can be notified of suspicious activity online, and once a genuine suspicion is raised with the police they can then apply for a warrant; this warrant permits them access to your properties.
How are suspicions formed?
The two most common bases for suspicion in relation to online sexual offences including indecent images and sexual communication are complaints made as a result of online chats, or intelligence that is obtained from IP addresses.
Online conversations, or chat rooms, do not disappear. Unlike the spoken word, everything that was said can typically be re-read, copied and evidenced if necessary. Many cases of sexual communications are brought to the attention of the police either by concerned family members or friends of the victim, or by undercover officers who partook in these conversations as part of their online investigations. Once the police receive information about such chats they can then take steps to identify the parties involved.
This is sometimes straightforward. Many people use their own details when registering for online chatrooms or dating sites and it is very easy for the police to identify a person from their e-mail address or telephone number. Others use false details, and e-mail addresses that cannot be linked to them. In cases such as this the police rely on other information, such as the IP addresses used.
There are also cases where there are no identifiable ‘victims’ or a complaint, but the police are notified of specific IP addresses that appear to be downloading images believed to be indecent.
What are IP and ISP addresses?
In order to access the internet you must have an ‘Internet Service Provider’ (ISP). You can use your own ISP from home or work, which has a reference unique to your account, or you can subscribe to use someone else’s ISP address; for example when accessing the internet from a café or train. Your ‘Internet Protocol Address’ (IP) shows which computer is being used. When you pass information from one device to another, the IP of each device is logged.
This means, in layman terms, forensic investigators can identify which device was used to send or receive digital information, and which modem or internet provider was used to send it. Such information is often used to formulate the initial suspicion that results in warrants being obtained and people’s devices being seized.
What happens once my devices have been seized?
Very often in cases based on intelligence only, the police will obtain a warrant in order to seize various devices capable of accessing the internet, rather than arrest the suspect at the outset. Sometimes they will wish to conduct an interview under caution prior to any items being examined, but often they will simply take the devices of interest and leave.
The reality is, the examination of electronic equipment can be a very long process due to the current backlog with the police’s forensic experts. This can be an extremely stressful and upsetting time for anyone under investigation. It is crucial, therefore, that professional advice and support is obtained at the outset.
Contact Olliers pre-charge team
At Olliers we have a specialist team of lawyers who are available to assist from the outset of any such investigation. If you are currently under investigation for a criminal offence please contact Ruth Peters on 0161 834 1515 for a preliminary discussion as to how Olliers’ proactive and strategic approach can assist you.