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Laurie Clarke


Privacy group warns of Home Office ‘mega-database’ on the horizon

A new ‘mega-database’ for law enforcement could have calamitous consequences for civil liberties if not subject to parliamentary scrutiny, warns rights group Privacy International.

The Law Enforcement Data Service (LEDS) will combine data from the Police National Computer (PNC) and the Police National Database (PND), as well as the DVLA database, and immigration databases such as the Immigration and Asylum Biometric System (IABS), all through a common interface.

It will mean a vast trove of easily accessible data at the fingertips of law enforcement that is “unprecedented in policing today”, says Ksenia Bakina, legal officer at Privacy International.

The PNC holds data such as peoples’ vehicles and property, as well as arrests, charges and court disposals, for about 12.6 million people. The PND receives daily intelligence from law enforcement. It’s difficult to ascertain how many peoples’ records are held.

A major concern is the “intelligence material” included on the database won’t be accessible to the public due to national security protections. This means data could be inaccurate yet remain unchallenged, despite having negative consequences on peoples’ lives.

This kind of intelligence could include subjective judgements from police officers, information from covert intelligence sources or lawfully authorised tracking or listening devices.

“We are concerned about this because the amount of information that’s going to be available on a single database is going to be much broader than what was previously available,” says Bakina. Privacy International’s concern is greatest for vulnerable people such as refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, as well as ethnic minorities who are more likely to suffer discrimination at the hands of police.

Developed by the Home Office National Law Enforcement Data Programme (NLEDP), LEDS first got underway in 2018. Since then, Privacy International and other NGOs have contributed feedback on the project in “open space” meetings with the Home Office.

But the group is concerned that so far the database has not been subject to any parliamentary scrutiny. Privacy International has written to three select committees including the Science and Tech Committee, the Home Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, demanding they use their powers to scrutinise LEDS. The group says it has not yet heard back from any of them.

The UK College of Policing is currently conducting a public consultation on the code of practice for the database lasting until 9 September. The first stage of the LEDS is due to be operational by late 2020, with further data sources to be added in the future.

The stated aim of LEDS is to “prevent crime and better safeguard the public”. It’s part of the Home Office’s aim for a “joined up” approach to policing that will eventually loop in other groups too, such as Border Force.

Bakina highlights the Gangs Matrix as a case study in the potential perils of such a database. This Metropolitan Police list compiles information about boys and young men in London and has been widely criticised as being racist and blighting the life chances of those included on it. Early in 2020, the Met was forced to remove hundreds of names from the list due to breaking data laws.

“That’s the example that we have of what could potentially happen if we merge intelligence sources with sources that are available from public records,” says Bakina.

“That data [could be] shared with the council, with an employment agency, with numerous organisations that could utilise it in a way that will negatively affect individuals’ lives, whether it’s employment benefits, whether it’s a council flat or even their immigration status.”

The College for Policing has published a non-exhaustive list of the organisations that can access LEDS. As well as law enforcement agencies and government departments, non-police authorities such as the Gambling Commission and the Food Standards Agency appear on the list.

Commercial companies that have access (although not “direct access”), include Experian, Datatag ID (a forensic vehicle identification company), and the Gun Trade Association. Most of the ten companies listed have access for the purpose of “Prevention and detection of vehicle-based crime”.

International bodies are also slated to have access including the US Embassy, for purposes of “access and employment checks”, but not checks on UK citizens travelling to the US.

It’s unclear how LEDS will use photographic images – another source of concern for Privacy International. There are about 12 million images in the PND gallery – some of which are retained unlawfully – and if all images are combined in LEDS, this would include images that have been stored as intelligence material, as well as images obtained through lawful exercises such as immigration. LEDS will incorporate the face matching technology currently used on the PND, and could one day be combined with controversial Automatic Facial Recognition (AFR) technologies.

David Tucker, crime lead for the College of Policing, said: “In this increasingly digital world it is vital that police forces and other law enforcement agencies have access to accurate and up to date data to help them fight crime and protect the public.

“To support the Home Office launch of Law Enforcement Data Service (LEDS), the College of Policing has developed a draft Code of Practice, which provides a clear framework to balance the rights of individuals with support for law enforcement.

“This code, which is subject to public consultation until September 9, emphasises the legislative protections and sets out clear principles to make sure information contained on LEDS is accurate and retained in accordance with the law.”

Privacy International argues that the database will contribute to over-policing, as well as increasing the tendency for police to act as members of the Border Force. The group is demanding greater transparency, oversight, and safeguards to help prevent this from happening.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Law Enforcement Data Service will be a vital tool to prevent crime and bring perpetrators to justice.

“The system will have very strict controls to ensure its use will be focused on its key purpose – protecting the public.

“We have engaged openly and constructively with civil society organisations to ensure the use of data will be proportionate and respect privacy.”