Who Is Behind the Hacked Climate Emails? And When Will the Criminals Be Brought to Justice?

December 19, 2011 | 12:20 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

When a hacker (or hackers) released a second batch of emails stolen from scientists last month, the immediate question that sprang to my mind was, “Why haven’t we found them yet?” And now, after months of apparent inactivity, it seems that British authorities are taking a renewed interest in tracking down the criminals who are responsible, and the United States Department of Justice is also getting involved.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) originally put it quite nicely in a statement: “If this happened surrounding nuclear arms talks, we would have the full force of the western world’s intelligence community pursuing the perpetrators. And yet, with the stability of our climate hanging in the balance with these international climate treaty negotiations, these hackers and their supporters are still on the loose. It is time to bring them to justice.”

Norfolk Constabulary headquarters

The Norfolk Constabulary headquarters in Wymondham. Photo: Katy Walters

The Guardian reported last week that Norfolk police seized two laptops and a router from the home of Roger Tattersall, a British man who runs a blog that criticizes mainstream climate science. In a statement to The Telegraph, the police confirmed that the seizure was related to “the investigation into the taking of data from the UEA that started in November 2009.” According to Science, the police said in a statement that Mr. Tattersall is not a suspect, and by all accounts he seems to be cheerily complying with police requests.

In addition, on December 9, the U.S. Department of Justice asked Automattic Inc., which owns the blogging platform WordPress, to preserve all records associated with the accounts of three climate contrarians. (This UCS blog is also hosted by WordPress).

This is the first time I am aware of involvement by U.S. authorities. When contacted by UCS staff, a DOJ spokesperson declined to comment on the investigation.

In the United Kingdom, the Norfolk police department is handling the investigation into who stole the emails. It’s encouraging to me that they seem to be taking the case more seriously, as previous reports had indicated that they did not seem to have made the investigation a very high priority.

The BBC’s Richard Black first broke the story that some are questioning whether the resources the police have devoted to the investigation have been sufficient. Brendan DeMelle, writing on DeSmogBlog, published responses from the Norfolk Constabulary to several freedom of information requests which indicate the police spent just £80,905.11 on the investigation between November 2009 and February 2011.

Other freedom of information request responses found on the Norfolk Constabulary website show that the Norfolk police spent nothing at all on the investigation between March and the end of October 2011.

So, over the course of two years, the police spent £80,905.11 on the investigation. To put that in context: the annual approved budget of the Norfolk police department for the 2011-2012 fiscal year is £148,620,000. The 2010-2011 budget was £146,693,000.

Is the £80,905.11 spending figure a good measure of total investigative resources? It’s hard to know. A spokesperson for the constabulary told the Guardian that it was “relevant to note that the figures relate only to additional expenditure and do not include officer and staff time on the investigation, which is not routinely recorded.”

Then how many officers are working on the case? In a September 2011 response to one of the records requests, the police wrote, “There are currently no police officers or police staff, within Norfolk Constabulary, working full time on the investigation into the acquisition of data from the computers at the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit.”

Okay, so no officers were working around the clock to crack the case. It’s still possible that some officers were working part-time on the hacking (when not busy looking for rare chickens or stopping suspicious cyclists to crack down on bicycle theft). But this is not an acceptable nor sufficient commitment of resources by the Norfolk police to bring these criminals to justice.

It’s also possible that there are higher level British authorities involved. DeMelle adds that the  “Norfolk Constabulary invoked an exemption under the FOIA rules to refuse to confirm or deny whether other UK security services such as MI5 or MI6 have worked on the investigation. A statement from Norfolk police did confirm it is receiving ‘ongoing assistance’ from the UK’s domestic terrorism agency, the National Domestic Extremism Coordination Unit, and that it was helped early in the investigation by London’s Metropolitan Police. But the current status of their involvement – and how high a priority this investigation is for these agencies – is unclear.”

Additionally, according to an older Guardian article, “a group of officers from the counter-terrorism squad and Scotland Yard’s electronic crimes unit” were involved at one point in the investigation.

Hopefully, last week’s developments signal that the second release of stolen emails in November convinced U.S. and British authorities to escalate their efforts to figure out who is involved in these crimes.