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Scotland Yard asks London Internet cafe owners to monitor their customers' Web files

LONDON - Internet cafe users in the British capital may want to watch what they download.

Internet cafe users in the British capital may want to watch what they download. Scotland Yard
is advising administrators of public Web spaces to periodically poke
through their customers' files and keep an eye out for suspicious
activity.

The Metropolitan Police said Thursday that the
initiative - which has been rolled out over the past weeks under the
auspices of the government's counterterrorism strategy - is aimed at
reminding cafe owners that authorities are ready to hear from them if
they have concerns about their Internet users.


Posters and computer desktop images emblazoned with Scotland Yard's logo are also being distributed.


“It's
not about asking owners to spy on their customers, it's about raising
awareness,” a police spokesman said, speaking anonymously in line with
force policy. “We don't ask them to pass on data for us.”


Still,
he said, police were “encouraging people to check on hard drives.” He
did not elaborate, saying it would be up to cafe owners to decide if or
how to monitor what customers left on their computers.


Checking
hard drives could reveal what customers were up to fairly easily under
the right circumstances, according to Graham Cluley of software
security company Sophos. For example, an owner could examine a
browser's Internet history or sift through the programs or documents
the customer downloaded - although distinguishing which user did what
might be difficult in a busy cafe.


But Cluley noted that a computer-savvy criminal could make their activities invisible in a few simple steps.


“You
would expect any cybercriminal who had made the decision to use an
Internet cafe to pretty much dust off their fingerprints,” he said.


Still, Cluley said “there's no harm in keeping an eye open.”


While
the program is voluntary - owners can ignore police advice if they so
choose - civil libertarians aren't happy. One said it risked creating
an atmosphere of fear while undermining Internet users' privacy.


“What
you're going to end up with is a lot of people reporting Muslims in
Internet cafes,” said Simon Davies, the director of U.K.-based Privacy
International. Although he acknowledged that people might have lower
expectations of privacy in an Internet cafe than at home, he said their
communications should nonetheless be kept to themselves.


“We
don't expect that our calls from a public phone would be monitored,
anymore than we should expect our emails to be monitored,” he said. “As
citizens we have to hold the line that there is a fundamental right of
privacy of communications.”


Police say Internet cafe owners
should remain vigilant in part because the venues have often been used
by terrorists and other criminals in an attempt to evade detection. The
police spokesman noted that the men behind the plot to blow up
U.S.-bound passengers jets with liquid explosives secreted into soft
drink containers used an Internet cafe to co-ordinate their plot.


So
far the only visible sign of the police's initiative were some sternly
worded posters warning customers against accessing “inappropriate or
offensive content” posted at Internet cafes in various areas of London.
The desktop images promoted by Scotland Yard
- which would have the warning staring out from every computer screen -
were absent from the few north London cafes seen by The Associated
Press.


In other EU nations Internet cafes generally go about their business with a minimum of official interference.


Germany's
federal police agency Bundeskriminalamt has no similar program,
spokeswoman Barbara Huebner said, while French Internet cafes do not
generally monitor users' activity.


At a Paris Internet cafe that
is part of the Cybercafe Milk chain, employees are not allowed to view
what their customers are researching on the Internet.


“It's private, thankfully,” said employee Pierre Larroque, 31.


Back
in Britain, K. Jama of IFKA Tele.com in the Camden area of north London
said his cafe couldn't be bothered to monitor its customers' downloads
or Internet history - which he said were wiped from the computers every
day in any case. Still, the 34-year-old said the police's posters were
a useful way of deterring criminals from his shop.


“When they see the poster hanging there, they will think twice, that's the main thing,” Jama said.


But
Arash Assam, an 18-year-old student who was browsing Facebook in the
basement of the shop - just beneath the bright purple police warning -
wasn't impressed.


“I didn't even notice it,” he said.


The
Internet cafe initiative came as lawmakers criticized the government's
counterterrorism strategy. A report published by a parliamentary
committee on human rights Thursday said civil liberties were all too
often “squeezed out by the imperatives of national security and public
safety” in the fight against terrorism.


The government said the threat to Britain from terrorists remained “real and serious.”


Associated Press writers Katie King in Paris and Verena Schmitt-Roschmann in Berlin contributed to this report.