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Police gangs database breached data protection laws

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A Metropolitan Police database of suspected gang members has seriously breached data protection laws. That's the findings of an investigation by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

What is the Gangs Matrix?

The Gangs Matrix was set up following the 2011 London riots. It contains the names and personal details of thousands of people. According to the Met, these individuals either pose a risk of committing gang violence, or of becoming victims.

In total, the matrix holds details of around 3,500 people, some of who are as young as 12. It stores their full name, dateof birth, home address, and information on whether someone is a firearms offender or a knife carrier. Also, each individual is allocated a green, amber or red rating indicating their apparent risk of violence.

There are a significant number of children and vulnerable individuals on the list.

What was the problem with the Gangs Matrix?

Concerns were raised that the matrix violated human rights. Not least because young black men and boys made up more than three-quarters of the list. What's more, the Guardian newspaper found that in one London borough, 40% of young people on the list had "zero" risk of causing harm.

In response, the ICO undertook a review of the database.

What did the ICO find?

While the ICO acknowledged the severity of gang crime, its investigation into the police database found that a failure to adhere to data protection principles potentially caused "damage and distress" to the disproportionate number of black men on it.

According to the ICO, some boroughs also operated informal lists of people who no longer met the criteria for being on the matrix. This meant that the police continued to monitor people that intelligence indicated were not gang members.

Also, data on the list was inappropriately shared with other public bodies such as local councils, housing associations, and education authorities. And there was no guidance on how this data should be used. As a result, people faced sanctions relating to housing, jobs and other public services. The Information Commissioner said that: "simply being on this database could lead to denial of services and other adverse consequences".

The investigation also found that the matrix failed to distinguish between victims of crime and offenders, leading to confusion among officers.

Amnesty International welcomed the report stating that: "The investigation by the Information Commissioner's Office confirms a lot of our own findings into the gangs matrix: namely, that it is currently not fit for purpose".

What was the outcome of the investigation?

The Metropolitan Police force was ordered to radically reform the matrix.

The ICO's recommendations included:

  • Conducting an impact assessment on the Gangs Matrix
  • Ensuring people are clearly identified to distinguish between victims of crime and suspects
  • Improving guidance to explain what constitutes a gang member
  • Removing people from the matrix where necessary
  • Erasing any informal lists of people
  • Conducting a full review to establish how information on the list is being shared and used
  • Developing guidance setting out how information on the list can be used
  • Training officers and staff who have access to and use the database
  • Putting more robust data security systems and access restrictions in place.

The Met said it accepted the findings and was working to address them. The ICO also launched a separate investigation into how police information was being used by other public bodies, such as local councils.

However, concerns have now been raised about Concern Hub - a new criminal database similar to the Gangs Matrix. Not least because information gathered by Concern Hub will be shared with other agencies.

A spokesperson for Amnesty International said: "Any police database being developed must comply with human rights standards and conform to data protection laws and needs to be far more than a rebrand of the deeply problematic Gangs Matrix".

What can you do if you have suffered because of the Gangs Matrix?

It is the job of the police to protect us, and in a digital society that also means protecting our data. However, where this trust is being undermined, it is vital to hold them to account.

According to the ICO, problems with the Gangs Matrix go back to 2011 and created a plausible risk to this data.

There is also real concern about the impact on its mainly black and ethnic minority data subjects (people on the database). And, while the investigation focused on London, this issue could be more widespread.

If you have suffered damage or distress caused by the Gangs Matrix you have a right to claim compensation. To find out how we can help you recover any losses, give us a call on 0151 363 5895 to discuss your case in more depth.

Find out more about how we are helping to reduce the impact of police data breach violations. Or, for more advice on how to keep your data safe, follow us on Twitter and Facebook.