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GCHQ spies to join hunt for paedophiles hiding in the deep Web

The government surveillance body will join forces with the National Crime Agency to tackle those who share images of child abuse.

GCHQ's listening post in Cheltenham, known as "The Doughnut". Ministry of Defence

Britain's spies and police are teaming up to target paedophiles. GCHQ and the British version of the FBI are to be part of a special unit tracking down those who post and share images of child abuse on the "deep Web".

Prime Minister David Cameron announced the plans at the #WeProtect Children summit in London today. Based in Cheltenham, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is the surveillance agency that monitors communications for the intelligence services. Eavesdroppers from GCHQ will join forces with the National Crime Agency (NCA) in the special unit targeting child abuse.

The NCA is the UK's national law enforcement agency, formed in 2013 to replace the Serious Organised Crime Agency. As well as cybercrime, the NCA tackles organised crime including human and drug trafficking and other wrongdoings that cross local and international borders.

The new unit will delve into the "deep Web", the portion of the World Wide Web that is not indexed by search engines. Encrypted secret networks can be used to post and share images and videos depicting acts of child abuse, using special software like the browser Tor.

Grooming children online is also to be made a criminal offence. Laws predating the Internet are being updated to prevent paedophiles talking to children about sex on chat services, social networks or via other types of messaging.

GCHQ has recently been the focus of concerns in the UK over privacy and surveillance. In one instance earlier this year, files leaked by Edward Snowden revealed a programme called Optic Nerve that saw GCHQ collecting snaps from the webcams of Yahoo users.

"It is extremely important that the nature of GCHQ's collaboration with police meets civilian standards of transparency," cautions Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group. "Their skills are no doubt very valuable but collaboration over deeply disturbing criminal matters cannot be used as an excuse for continued unjustifiable mass surveillance programs."