Police super-database poses a "grave risk" to privacy rights

Police proposals to create a new ‘super-database’ could pose a “grave risk” to privacy, according to a UK-based human rights group.

Liberty claims that police and government are ignoring concerns that any such database could threaten civil liberties.

The database will be the largest of its kind ever built for UK law enforcement and will include sensitive information on victims of crime, in addition to those who have been cleared of any wrongdoing.

LEDS, the law enforcement data service, will use two current information stores – the police national computer and the police national database – while adding additional databases. The police national computer holds information pertaining to criminal convictions, while the PND holds details including intelligence.

The latter of these two has, in the past, been in the spotlight, with police services in England and Wales failing to destroy data held on people who had been released without charge. The proposed system doesn’t have an agreed retention policy, and the police have even admitted that data they no longer have any right to hold will be transferred to the new database.

Poor Consultation

The Home Office has conducted consultation meetings with privacy groups and experts ahead of the super-database launch later this year. However, Liberty has pulled out of discussions due to mounting concerns over the legality and ethics of the proposals – a move that could dash government’s hopes of allaying public concerns.

In one consultation, Liberty claimed, groups were told the new database would include information the goverment and police have no legal right to hold; but will do so regardless.

Through the database, users will reportedly be able to conduct Google-style searches on an individual whose information is held on file. Additionally, other agencies, such as the Border Force or credit reference agencies could be granted access to the database.

Liberty has been outspoken over these proposals, calling the Home Office’s consultations “a sham”. In a statement, Hannah Couchman of Liberty said: “This derisory consultation continues the pattern of police adding to their powers to use invasive technology without giving any regard to proper scrutiny and accountability – or the effect on our rights.

“We will continue to support other civil society organisations participating in the consultation process – and call on the Home Office to take seriously the serious privacy concerns we have highlighted.”

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Self-Assessment

The Home Office published its own assessment of the database in July, focusing on its impact upon privacy. A spokesperson for the government agency said: “The police national database and police national computer are vital tools that are used every day by the police to safeguard the public, prevent crime and bring perpetrators to justice.

“These two separate systems are nearing the end of their lives. By bringing them together on to a single, joined-up platform, the law enforcement data service will ensure existing capabilities are maintained.

“This is a complex project and that is why we are continuing to engage constructively with civil society organisations on its development to ensure the use of personal data is proportionate and respects the privacy of individuals.”

Creeping Concerns

The use of big data and emerging technologies by UK police services has regularly drawn criticism from Liberty and other privacy rights groups. While law enforcement agencies suggest that the use of a super-database will enable them to combat crime more effectively, trials in other areas have raised concerns over their intrusive nature.

Automated facial recognition (AFR) technology, as a prime example, has been highlighted by privacy rights groups – the blanket monitoring of citizens, regardless of their involvement in criminal activity, poses a huge risk to civil liberties, campaigners say.

“Police forces are increasingly looking to big data to assist with law enforcement,” Couchman said. “Having enormous amounts of our personal information held in one place is a significant violation of our privacy.”

She added: “While the collection of a few pieces of data can seem innocuous, combining it with other sensitive information can let the state build up a detailed and extremely intrusive personal profile on each of us.”

The use of machine learning was also criticised last week due to its capacity to ‘predict’ crime or whether an individual is likely to re-offend.

Couchman said: “We must question how super-databases like this will be linked with lawless surveillance technologies or biased algorithmic programs that make predictions about who is likely to commit crime.”

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