Why I distrust British Police and their obsession with data collection.

My concerns about how the PND is used… and what the solution to it is.

Advertised as an example of what policing ought to look like and hailed to the world as ‘the very best’ – British police have a proud history, and indeed, the fact we have a majority of officers not carrying firearms, robust codes of practices in place along with stringent disciplinary and complaints processes – there is much to celebrate.

However, delve inside and there remains significant problems that arguably detract from the positives to the extent that to continue the boast of ‘the very best’ is both misleading and disingenuous

Rife with racism, an obsession with data collection and failure at victim care is the reality of British policing, far from the golden pinnacle it pretends to be.

A few months ago, I wrote about racism in the police service and why the 40% increase in BAME officers target is farcical. 

There’s another issue that I have been meaning to write about for quite some time. 

That is – data, and the British police obsession with it.

All 43 police forces in the UK, the British Transport Police, Police Scotland, and other agencies including the Home Office, National Crime Agency and more have access to the Police National Computer (PNC). This system has been operational since 1974 and its purpose was a simple one – to store information on criminals. 

Now, it comprises several databases that contains over 13 million personal records, 58.5 million driver records and 62.6 million vehicle records. 

Food for thought: With that many records – Exactly how much of it is accurate? 

Forces also use ‘PND’, which is the Police National Database. This system is available to all UK police forces and other select law enforcement agencies and it currently holds over 3,500,000,000. No, there is no typo there and yes – three point five…BILLION entries with over 20,000,000 (yes – twenty MILLION) additional entries added each month. 

So what exactly is stored on the PNC and the PND? 

Having served as a Constable with direct access to both the PNC, PND and other databases, the simple answer to this question is – Everything. 

From descriptions of clothing to tattoos, allegations – whether founded or not, to vehicle descriptions and markers, to health markers – whether accurate or not; policing databases in the UK contain, as stated above, over 3.5 billion entries of data about virtually anything. 

Whilst I recognise, particularly following the Bichard inquiry, that the PND serves a solid purpose of safeguarding, countering-terrorism and preventing and disrupting serious, organised crime – I do have a huge issue with the PND.

That is – the inevitable mistakes of input in data, leading to an impossibility to ever comply with GDPR principles and basics in human rights and an individual’s right to a private life. Any police officer or other person with access to the PND can input whatever they like into it, without verifying its accuracy. 

“Nothing to hide, nothing to fear” – proponents of data collection use this saying to defend data collection; ultimately – why should one worry about their data being recorded, if they have nothing to hide? However, the “nothing to hide” principle ignores an important point: that you have no idea what data is being collected and the future implications of that data on the data subject, particularly where that data is wrong, misjudged or dare I say it – malicious.

A few months ago, whilst working for Deliveroo, I was subjected to an assault – pushed out of a restaurant for simply asking to use the toilet. The restaurant called the police on me and when the police turned up, it was obvious that they were unaware of health and safety regulations governing courier work and the rights of delivery drivers. The restauranteur alleged that I kicked him and so the police insisted that they take my details, despite my protests. If I did not hand my details over, I was threatened with arrest. 

Video footage shows clearly that the restauranteur’s allegation is wholly unfounded. Yet, my name, address and date of birth is now registered on the PND, accessible to thousands of police officers across the country, showing me to be an ‘alleged suspect’ of an assault. If I were to apply for enhanced ‘developed vetting’ or other security clearance, this is something that will flag up. When I complained to the police, an Inspector called me to discuss the matter and told me that there is no way that the data can be altered. He ‘reassured’ me that “it’s just an allegation, nothing is proven” and that it will have no adverse effect on me (yeah, right…)

In 2015, when I tried and failed to join the Metropolitan Police Service, details of two unlawful arrests remained on the PND, despite being compensated a sum of over £18,500 and being issued an apology from the police with a promise to “remove the data concerning both arrests”. This led to months of stress, a need to involve a Sunday Times journalist and submit various freedom of information and subject access requests until the truth was unveiled – that data about me was unlawfully held, which led to the “Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police reserving the right to refuse candidates without giving any reasons”. 

Not only that – other things that were uncovered include details of previous stop and searches, such as the time I was with my fellow plane enthusiast friend and stopped by armed police for taking a photograph of the new Airbus A380, in a public place, under S44 of the Terrorism Act and details of a vehicle stop where I was maliciously handcuffed and searched for drugs for “having tinted windows” and being in a ‘high crime rate area’ (the only drugs that were found was a packet of paracetamol)

Can you see now why the Inspector’s comments to me meant nothing?

So yes – data can and does have a real impact on individuals, and particularly for those of us from BAME communities who find ourselves disproportionately stopped, searched, and harassed by police from a young age. The various freedom of information requests seeking access to documents surrounding the Metropolitan Police’s vetting panels as I mentioned above revealed a shockingly disproportionate number of BAME candidates having to appeal against their vetting rejection. In one 2015 panel, of the 10 cases presented, around 7 of these concerned a BAME candidate.

It is for this reason that I so strongly distrust the police service and why I feel that the British police are not the gold standard it portrays itself to be.

On YouTube, there are hundreds of recorded incidents where individuals are stopped, and their details requested. Many of the people filming refuse to hand their details over – as is their right to do so. Good on them. However, so many people going about their daily lives and unfortunately find themselves interacting with police do hand their details over, even when there is no legal justification for the police to hold it.

Ultimately, handing details over to the police inevitably leads to an individual being added to the data machine and the existing cohort of 3.5 billion. Whether you are guilty or not and regardless of the accuracy of the data – you become a data subject.

Whilst we live in a ‘democracy’ and have relatively stringent protections of our human rights (for now) – what would happen if the Human Rights Act was to be scrapped as is the proposition by many within our current government? The implication can be huge – Government will have access to mass data that in the hands of a corrupt regime will inevitably result in the persecution of individual citizens, curtailing liberties and freedoms and as a means to monitor and control the population. If you think I’m exaggerating – what do you think will happen if an authoritarian regime, such as the PRC or Russian government had access to the level of data collected by British police on its citizens?

I want to end this article by re-emphasising that I am not against data collection – it’s an important part of policing and law enforcement that serves a solid purpose of safeguarding vulnerable citizens, preventing crime and disrupting serious and organised criminals.

What I do believe, however, is that there needs to be transparency – individuals should be able to access their individual records without even having to submit subject access requests, perhaps through a system similar to how their “government ID gateway” works to access their driving or tax information. Obviously, there are reasons why some data should not be accessible to data subjects – particularly where this poses a risk to public safety, but in general, citizens should not have to battle a tedious process to see what data is held about them.

In addition, individuals should have the right to ask for amendments to their data and for such requests to be appropriately considered. In cases where allegations are made about individuals – why can’t they put ‘their side of events’ down too and for this to be recorded?

Finally, where no lawful reason exists to collect data – officers should not insist on a name and address beyond simply asking once, and this should be something incorporated into a code of practice on data collection. As with the YouTubers mentioned above (I mean, many are simply irritating and purposely provoking a reaction – but, despite mine or your views on it – being irritating…isn’t a crime…), unless the police detain someone or have a lawful justification to ask for a name, and where exists no repercussion from simply walking away – that person’s choice to not hand over their details must be respected.

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