How the Police Gather and Store Your Data Without Your Knowledge

The Police National Database (PND) is the largest information system kept by the police. Larger than the Police National Computer (PNC), which is the database that holds details of everyone who has ever been arrested, cautioned, warned or prosecuted. Unlike the PNC, the function of the Police National Database is to gather and store information on those who might commit crime; or who may have associated with criminals (even without their knowledge); or those members of the public who may be the target of criminal allegations.

Almost every member of police staff have access to the PND including Police Specials, PCSOs and civilian staff. Although intel is maintained at local level by individual forces, the reports are routinely shared with forces nationally.

Intelligence is not gathered solely on people the police believe may be involved with crime. The police will collect information on anyone they deem relevant. Therefore the PND contains millions of intelligence reports, routinely gathered, including sensitive personal details of people who have never been arrested, charged or convicted of any crime.

The Digital Rumour Mill

The quality of ‘intelligence’ entered onto the PND varies from accusation, idle chat, rumour, smears, lies, slander, nonsense and fantasy all the way through to the occasional fact. If a member of the public chooses to make an anonymous allegation about someone, or the police themselves wish to enter rumour, opinion or suspicion about a witness, victim or suspect, they may do so with little regard for the relevancy or accuracy of the entry.

For instance, while on duty a police community support officer (PCSO) may stop to chat with a local shopkeeper. That shopkeeper may make idle gossip and mention the name of a youth that is known to police that he has seen hanging around. He doesn’t have to mention that he has seen the youth engaging in any criminal activity. He could just mention the names of friends that he has seen that person with. Almost certainly, as soon as the PCSO returns to base, those names will be entered onto the PND. Alongside the name of the shopkeeper who passed on the information.

This data is then stored for a minimum of six years in accordance with police data retention policy that varies from force to force.

All of this seems to run contrary to the laws of data protection – which prohibit authorities from processing unsubstantiated and irrelevant information – but unfortunately the police, alongside many other public authorities, have a get-out clause of ‘protected privilege’. This effectively means that if the information is collected and shared in good faith – regardless of it’s accuracy or honesty – the data controller cannot be sued for defamation. However, if it can be proven that the information is malicious or that the officer who entered the information knew it to be untrue, the defence of ‘protected privilege’ is lost and the police can be sued.

Intelligence files are damaging for those eligible for enhanced criminal record checks as a condition of employment. The disclosure form gives a senior officer the opportunity to add any “other relevant information” that they believe an employer should know. Much of this can be drawn from unsubstantiated remarks on intelligence files, and many individuals have found their job prospects ruined by what is nothing more than spiteful rumour.

Recent rulings in both the Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights have declared that entering unnecessary detail on enhanced criminal record certificates is incompatible with the individuals right to a private life under Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).

Finding out what information the police hold on you in their intelligence files can often be difficult, as the police routinely refuse to disclose the data by citing protected privilege and Data Protection exemptions. However, persistence is key to obtaining any data that the police may be processing in your name and if they refuse to reveal what information they hold on you, there are many avenues of governing bodies, judicial review, civil claims, data protection rights and human rights issues that can be pursued.

For more information on your rights of access see this article I have written here.

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