The dark web has established itself as an arena for criminals to sell drugs, peddle stolen data, or host and exchange child pornography. With that in mind, the UK's signals intelligence agency, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), and its top law enforcement body, the National Crime Agency (NCA), have formed a new unit compromising of officers from both agencies to tackle online crime.
“An NCA and GCHQ co-located Joint Operations Cell (JOC) opens officially today,” an NCA press release published Friday reads. “The unit brings together officers from the two agencies to focus initially on tackling online child sexual exploitation.”
This unit has been in the works for some time. Back at the end of 2014, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced the plan for its formation at We Protect Children Online Global Summit. At the time, he said that “The so-called ‘dark-net’ is increasingly used by paedophiles to view sickening images. I want them to hear loud and clear: we are shining a light on the web’s darkest corners; if you are thinking of offending, there will be nowhere for you to hide.” At the summit, it was said that GCHQ's technical skills would be its contribution to the unit.
But the JOC won't just focus on child pornography cases. GCHQ Director Robert Hannigan said in the recent release that, on top of child exploitation, "The Joint Operations Cell will increase our ability to identify and stop serious criminals.”
The creation of this unit should finally shatter the image that GCHQ solely focuses on national security matters or terrorism cases. In the past, a part of the agency called Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group, or JTRIG, has gone undercover to catch teenage Anonymous hacktivists, as well as bombarded their chatrooms with DDoS attacks.
And it's not even the first time that news of GCHQ teaming up with the NCA has come to light either. As early as 2013, when the NCA was first created from the shuttered Serious Organised Crime Agency, the Daily Mail reported that it would be working closely with GCHQ.
Regardless, this unit appears to be the closest collaboration between the agencies yet. NCA Director General Keith Bristow added in the release that “The explosion in online communication channels has brought huge benefits for society. It has also significantly expanded the means by which criminals can share information, plan crimes including the sexual exploitation of children, and target victims. The JOC is a genuinely innovative development, using the best of our respective agencies' skills to tackle the most complex cases and the most dangerous offenders online.”