In defence of Operation Ore

Nick Barron, security consultant
Nick Barron, security consultant

Operation Ore has become a surprising target of criticism, but a close look at the evidence tells the real story.

Operation Ore was one of the largest UK police operations against the distribution of indecent images of children (IIOC). You'd think that there would be widespread support for the police's success, but it seems that for some, Operation Ore is considered a major miscarriage of justice.

Ore began in 2002 after the seizure of a US computer system used to provide access to IIOC websites. The subscriber list included nearly 8,000 in the UK.

As a result of this seizure, nearly 6,000 people were investigated, with 2,500 of them prosecuted for a range of offences. As they included a number of celebrities, Ore came under close press scrutiny, and the investigative journalist Duncan Campbell published a number of critical articles (http://tinyurl.com/y8u5j6n, for example).

One standard objection to the prosecutions is the suggestion that the potential of credit card fraud was ignored. Online credit card fraud is commonplace, but in most Ore investigations there are three main counterpoints to this defence.

First, the normal pattern of fraud is multiple transactions, not a single bogus website subscription. Second, in the vast majority of the prosecutions, IIOC images were subsequently found on the defendants' computers. Finally, in almost every case the defendants were male. The chances of random credit card theft resulting in such a high proportion of male card owners are rather small.

For a good example of how the credit card fraud defence often failed under scrutiny, see the O'Shea appeal (http://tinyurl.com/crlwxx4). It is not true that the police ignored the potential for credit card fraud; in fact they were explicitly briefed on it.

More recently, the successful appeal of Jeremy Clifford has rekindled interest in Operation Ore. While it seems clear that Clifford's prosecution was in error, it is equally clear that his was a rather unique set of circumstances. Asserting that this unusual case undermines Operation Ore as a whole is not credible.

Likewise, the recent ‘revelation' that there was concern over the validity of incitement evidence (http://tinyurl.com/68qoj78) is somewhat overblown, given that less than two per cent of the Ore cases related to incitement, where the offence is not one of possession of images but of encouraging criminal activity by supporting IIOC sites.

You might wonder why, in the face of such criticism, the police and forensics investigators involved haven't spoken up. Their silence is not a matter of submission but one of legislation; while appeals and cases are under way any public statement by the investigators could be considered prejudicial. Those forensics specialists not directly involved have probably been put off by the hostile stance of the online press, such as The Register and others.

I research forensics as a somewhat expensive hobby, and have been lucky enough to interact with a wide range of forensics investigators both in and outside of law enforcement. They are the friendliest and most professional community I've dealt with in a long time. The suggestion that they would ignore possible confounding factors such as credit card fraud is simply laughable.

Sexual crime against children is worthy of the full force of the law. It is precisely because of the serious consequences for defendants that investigators tend to err well on the side of caution even within the normal laws of evidence.

While no one would claim Operation Ore was perfect, the perception that a few technical issues with certain cases undermine the whole operation seems unreasonable once you dig a bit deeper into the evidence and talk to those involved. I hope that future coverage will be more balanced and less antagonistic.

Perhaps the most important detail regarding Operation Ore is the one its critics seldom quote: 154 children in the UK were rescued from abuse. That's a figure to be proud of.

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