Watching you?

The Guardian Angels have arrived on the Internet. The police and civil liberties groups are doubtful. Milly Jenkins reports

The Guardian Angels, the American vigilante group famous for their red berets, have found a new area to patrol - the Internet. The CyberAngels, as they call themselves, say the Net is like a city, and all cities need police. Based in Los Angeles, the CyberAngels started out with a handful of volunteers. But in recent months the organisation has mushroomed and there are now 1,500 volunteers in 34 countries, including 50 in Britain. They are mostly professionals with their own computers - teachers, policemen and IT workers.

Their British leader and founder, Colin "Gabriel" Hatcher, once a Guardian Angel in London, says they are trying to "help people in trouble". This means tracking down stalkers, fraudsters and hackers, and most of all, "paedophile predators".

Instead of making online citizens' arrests, the most that CyberAngels can do is report criminal activity to Internet service providers and sometimes the police. "We are not some kind of SAS organisation," insists Hatcher. "Mainly what we're doing is witnessing crimes and passing it on to the authorities."

In America, police and FBI have said that the CyberAngels may actually be hindering law enforcement. The FBI has said that they are in danger of interfering with their investigations, especially when they pose as children in the hope of attracting paedophiles, a tactic employed by the FBI.

But Hatcher says the CyberAngels only want to help to enforce the law. "This is still a very new field and the FBI doesn't have the resources to deal with the scale of the problem. We, the people, need to help the police do better."

Civil liberties groups also voice concern. Declan McCullagh, a Washington journalist and Fight Censorship campaigner, is no fan. "I don't think what they do is worth very much," he says. "They say they're in favour of free speech, but if you look at their actions, it's just not so. They tend to think everyone is a villain and out to do wrong. And they have a very broad definition of what is `wrong'."

The CyberAngels do indeed veer towards the moral high ground, often blurring the line between what is actually illegal and what they deem immoral. Despite Hatcher's insistence that all they do is report crime, he also talks of "investigating" people's movements on the Net.

He describes a recent case where an American woman became involved with a British man who, after gaining her trust and persuading her to send him nude photos, allegedly threatened to post them on the Internet if she didn't agree to send photos of herself in bondage. The CyberAngels helped her to contact Scotland Yard. But Hatcher says they also "helped obtain a lot of information about the man. We researched what he was doing on the Internet and found a lot of information about him among the bondage groups".

The CyberAngels argue that they are backed by popular demand. Hatcher says that when the Internet began to explode in 1995, the Guardian Angels received hundreds of letters from concerned parents: "The message was `we need you'."

Sceptics dismiss the Angels as being an ongoing publicity stunt, however. Their approach to crime is also criticised for being simplistic. Hatcher talks a lot about "the good guys" and "the bad guys". But as Declan McCullagh says, it's not that straightforward. "The pornographers are quite happy to label their sites and keep kids away," McCullagh says. "As for the so-called paedophiles, I suspect a lot of them are journalists and policemen looking for stories and arrests."

Britain now has its own Internet watchdog, the Internet Watch Foundation. It has been up and running only a few months and has so far received few calls from people wanting to report illegal activity. Although the IWF may be less showy than the Angels, it has the backing of the Metropolitan Police and the majority of Internet service providers.

But both the CyberAngels and the IWF are going to have problems assessing their success. Unless the evidence they find leads to prosecutions, it's hard to know exactly how useful they are. The CyberAngels say they have already passed on more than 5,000 pieces of evidence to the authorities. But they have no idea how many "bad guys" they've managed to stopn

Internet Watch Foundation (01223-236 077 or report@internetwatch.org.uk)

CyberAngels (www.cyberangels.org)

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environmentGardeners rally round the endangered bumblebee
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
musicBest exclusives coming to an independent record shop near you this Record Store Day
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Arts & Entertainment
Comedian Lenny Henry is calling for more regulation to support ethnic actors on TV
tvActor and comedian leads campaign against 'lack of diversity' in British television
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Apprentice IT Technician

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

    1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

    £153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

    1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

    Sales Associate Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit