A long, really long time ago I was a reporter on Computer Weekly, in the days when you could swat really quite large animals with it, rather than anaemic spiders as is now the case. One of the stories that I got into in depth there was BT’s Customer Service Systems (CSS) project. Great fun it was (though too far back in time for Google to turn up anything useful; but it’s the reason why, when you call 150, that BT can give you service) finding out what was going on, and going wrong in the sprawl of the project; and great journalistic fun it was too listening to the PR people from BT (generally only one, but anyway) being very insistent about how things weren’t at all how my contacts were all telling me it was.
You only realise how you’ve missed that feeling when you get it again. And I feel like I have, over Operation Ore. Until a few weeks ago, I thought – like you probably did or do – that it was a stunning success for the police, in which they nailed a stack of paedophiles bang to rights. Weirdly that bang-to-rights list seemed to include Pete Townshend, fabulous Who guitarist. But, you know, people are strange, that sort of thing.
Then I got a call one day from Barry at PC Pro magazine, offering an article by Duncan “Zircon” Campbell about it, saying that while yes, Ore had caught a number of really horrible paedophiles, there were a number of people who had been charged – and frequently convicted, though if you’re charged with viewing child porn then there’s not much difference since the police will go around to your employer and your friends and so on – where there simply wasn’t enough supporting evidence to suggest that they had been viewing child porn. Things like no images on their hard drive; no evidence of accessing the porn sites; and peculiar patterns whereby their credit card had been used to buy access to sites yet they’d not gone on to access it. Which is kinda strange, isn’t it? But what the police had overlooked was evidence of fraud on the site: such as repeated transactions from the same IP address using different cards to sign up but not access a site. Like you’d expect from a fraudster, not a porn-seeker of any ilk.
To which you say – oh, come on, they were found guilty, they musta done it.
Well, not so fast. Courts and court processes are rather different from the way you’d try to frame an argument. “I didn’t” doesn’t stand up very well. Though equally “you did”, in legalese, can be a long way from the reality of what you did do if a computer is involved.
But I’ve also discovered, on getting into the topic, that there’s a well-oiled PR machine which is very insistent that Ore was, or is, a success, and that anyone or anything who says otherwise is misguided, wrong, and did you know that.. off the record…?
Bing! goes the little bell in the back of my head. I remember that, for sure. Big organisations? Protecting reputations? Whispers about some uncomfortable facts that would embarrass the big organisation? Renewed PR efforts? Oh, yes, it’s deja vu.
- Campbell’s piece for the Guardian
- the (somewhat longer) PC Pro piece (registration required, I’m afraid)
- And then my followup, because I got the bit between my teeth
- And Professor Ross Anderson’s observations on his team blog
- And the Register piece, plus its comments
- And the BBC News piece
- which followed the Investigation programme
- And the Register piecewhich followed that
- And its comments
There’s something underneath all this, and parts of it don’t smell savoury at all. But today I got a call from someone who has collected a chunk of data about all this. I feel energised. Asking difficult questions about big things that you thought you knew about is a fundamental task in journalism. I think it’s time to ask some fundamental questions about a number of the Operation Ore cases.