An investigation into suspected online images of child abuse has seen one man jailed – for failing to give police his passwords.
No charges were brought against Damion Bagalue, 42, in relation to the alleged images but he pleaded guilty at Preston Crown Court to one charge under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).
Officers from Lancashire Constabulary’s specialist online child abuse investigation team searched Bagalue’s Lonsdale Road home in December 2016 after they received information about suspicious online activity.
He was arrested and several devices capable of accessing the internet were seized by police.
However, when they went to examine them, they were thwarted by the password protection.
Bagalue refused to cooperate with investigators or hand over his password and was charged under RIPA legislation, which governs digital surveillance.
The court also ordered the devices – including a computer – to be destroyed.
In addition to the jail sentence, Bagalue was also given a five-year Sexual Harm Prevention Order (SHPO), despite the fact he did not face charges relating to a sexual offence.
Police forces have the power to demand password to access media devices like mobile phones, laptops and computers.
Refusal to hand over the information is a criminal offence under section 49 of RIPA.
Refusal to comply with a section 49 notice can result in a maximum sentence of two years in prison, or five years in cases involving national security or child indecency.
Investigating officer Lynne Blackwell, of Lancashire Police’s online child abuse investigation team, said: “Suspects in online investigations may seek to obstruct investigations by withholding passwords, and Lancashire Constabulary will take robust action against anyone who seeks to frustrate our efforts to investigate alleged crimes and seek justice for victims.
“We remain committed to a tenacious and pro-active approach to investigating such crimes and to identifying those individuals who seek to use the internet for their own depraved purposes.
“I would urge anyone who has suspicions about illegal use of the internet to report it to the police using 101 or anonymously through Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.”
The Crown Prosecution Service said it was not passed any details by police relating the child abuse images investigation.
But it confirmed it is the police which is responsible for investigating and employing specialist teams for gaining access to computers.
A spokesman said: “The CPS advises on whether there is sufficient evidence to prosecute someone who doesn’t comply with a notice they’ve been issued under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which is the relevant legislation in this sort of case, and brings the prosecutions where someone is charged.
“CPS gave a charging decision to the police that the RIPA offence was made out and there was sufficient evidence to charge him with it.”
Should Facebook hand over users' data?
Last month, social media giant Facebook came under scrutiny after it refused to give police access toan account at the centre of a murder inquiry.
The suspect, Stephen Nicholson, refused to hand over his password to officers investigating the death of Lucy McHugh, who was found stabbed to death in Southampton on July 26.
Detectives wanted to read through his private messages on the social media site to see if he had been in conversations with her.
Nicholson had been arrested on suspicion of murder and sexual activity with a child before being charged under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act - the same act used to convict Bagalue.
He pleaded guilty to the charge at Southampton Crown Court in August and was jailed for 14 months.
But police were then forced to apply via the US courts to get Facebook to hand over the password, prompting anger from Lucy’s family.
Her mum, Stacey White, was reported as saying: “In situations like this, Facebook really should just release the information that is needed and I think that is the opinion that everybody has.
“They should give over the account details. Lucy needs justice. It’s so easy for them to do.”
Asked if companies such as Facebook should comply with police requests like this, Met Police commissioner Cressida Dick said: “I absolutely think that in certain instances, and it sounds like this is one, law enforcement in the UK ought to have vital evidence which might bring someone to justice.
“It’s not as straightforward as it sounds, but I think that’s where we should be.”
When can police hack your computer?
Privacy groups say police officers have been able to “interfere” with electronic devices to access password-protect data for years.
The seemingly wide-ranging powers came under the spotlight as the Investigatory Powers Act came into force in 2016.
According to the Government, the new law “radically overhauls” the way powers are granted and overseen.
According to the act, the chief constable has the power to issue a “targeted equipment interference warrant” if he considers it necessary to prevent or detect serious crime or to prevent death or injury.
He must also be satisfied the warrant is “proportionate” to the purpose it serves and the necessary safeguards are in place.
Finally, except in urgent cases, the warrant must be approved by one of the UK’s 13 judicial commissioners.
RIPA powers in use
In 2010, a Freckleton teenager was sentenced to 16 weeks in a young offenders’ institution when he refused to give police the password to his computer.
The 19-year-old was arrested in May 2009 as part of a police investigation into child sex abuse.
His computer, which was protected by a 50-character password, was seized.
In September last year, Muhammad Rabbani, 36, was found guilty at Westminster Magistrates’ Court of wilfully obstructing police when he refused to hand over passwords to his mobile phone and laptop to officers at Heathrow Airport.
Reports at the time said that Rabbani, a director of Muslim detainee advocacy group CAGE, had downloaded evidence about alleged torture in the United States onto his laptop and phone so he could bring it back to the UK.
He was stopped at the airport as he returned to England from Qatar, and refused to provide his passwords when asked.
He was given a conditional discharge for 12 months and ordered to pay £620 in costs, the BBC