The British plod is not only holding onto the biometrics data of 7,800 subjects of counter-terrorism investigations – most of whom have never been charged with an offence – it is also losing information on some suspects before they've been assessed as a national security risk, the Biometrics Commissioner revealed today.
In his 119-page annual report, Alastair MacGregor QC noted (PDF) that "it seems likely that a significant number of biometric records have been, or will have to be, deleted even though there may well have been good reasons for keeping them on national security grounds."
This was due to the Home Office's delays in producing a biometrics strategy, he wrote. This has led to the inconsistent uptake of guidance introduced in 2012, which meant that time allowed to retain the data belonging to subjects of national security inquiries by the police had expired before national security determinations (NSDs) could be made. Once an application for an NSD is made, the police are given an extension to the time they are allowed to keep it.
Under existing guidance, once the police have made the decision to take “no further action” against an arrested individual with no previous convictions, the biometric material taken from them should be destroyed/deleted within a matter of days. About 55 per cent of the 7,800 people whose data was being held as of October 2015 have never been charged with or convicted of any "recordable offence", according to the report.
Such protections for unconvicted individuals were introduced with the Protections of Freedoms Act 2012 (PoFA). However, a chief constable is still able to extend the time that their material is held using an NSD, which it the commissioner's statutory duty is to examine and approve.
The commissioner announced that 217 applications were made for NSDs by 31 October 2015, with 117 being approved and sent to the Commissioner. MacGregor reported that he in turn only approved 73 of these requests as several were made outside of the time limits for the application, others had been approved by insufficiently senior officers.
Ahead of PoFA coming into effect, the police deleted more than three million DNA and fingerprint records from the national databases. Despite this, there has been a whopping 20 per cent net increase in the number of biometrics details being held on the national counter-terror databases since the commencement of PoFA.
According to the commissioner, the UK's counter-terror databases “have evolved without there being in place the sort of comprehensive and clearly documented governance arrangements, policies and protocols that one might reasonably expect.”
In his previous report, the Commissioner noted that legacy material held on those databases was being removed, and a deadline had been set for 31 October 2015. This deadline was not met, and has now been extended through to 31 October 2016.
144. The full scale and continuing nature of the problems caused by delays in the NSD process have only recently become apparent and I have been assured that further work is being done as a matter of urgency to prevent such problems occurring again and to mitigate their consequences. I am keeping that work – and the issue of delays in the NSD process more generally – under close and active review.
This is not the only ongoing delay, as not only is the Home Office's promised biometrics strategy three years late, but it has failed to lay the Commissioner's report before Parliament for three months.
As the Commissioner wrote: "Since I submitted my Report to the Home Secretary on 18 December 2015 I have had numerous meetings about these problems with representatives of the Metropolitan Police. As I indicated in my Report I will continue to keep these problems – and the urgent work that is being done by the Metropolitan Police in relation to them – under close and active review." ®