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More than half of people on UK counter-terror biometrics databases are innocent

New report rushed out ahead of EU referendum purdah

A new report from the UK's independent biometrics commissioner has revealed that more than half of people on British counter-terrorism databases are innocent, more than a thousand more than previously thought.

The commissioner has revised upwards his figures on fingerprint and DNA profile retention, stating that 53 per cent of the 9,600 individuals on counter-terrorism databases have never been convicted of a crime.

The extent to which police in the UK have been exploiting counter-terrorism laws to keep innocent suspects' biometric details on file is now understood to be much greater, following the new report's publication at the Home Secretary's request.

Biometrics commissioner Alastair MacGregor QC's 20-page report (PDF), published today, provides an update to his annual report from 2015, revising some of the key figures. It reveals even more police misuse of National Security Determinations (NSDs) than previously raised in his 119-page report for 2015.

Today's report was rushed out (alongside many others) ahead of purdah* for the EU referendum.

Last year MacGregor reported that the police were holding onto the biometric data of 6,500 and 7,800 subjects of counter-terrorism investigations in 2013 and 2015 respectively, many of whom have never been charged with an offence. Those numbers, along with previous figures, have now been increased.

He wrote: “It now appears that those figures were incorrect and that the true figures as at 31 October 2013 and 31 October 2015 were 8,300 and 9,600 respectively.”

The revised figures reveal that 4,500 - 54 per cent - of those held on the counter-terror databases in 2013 related to individuals who “had never been convicted of a recordable offence”. In 2015 the number of innocent (until proven guilty) individuals whose biometrics were being stored had risen to 5,050, or 53 per cent. The commissioner wrote:

I shall of course seek specific reassurances as to the reliability of any future statistical information that is provided to me by the MPS about the biometric material on the CT databases that is subject to the requirments of PoFA.

Despite the time limits on the retention of fingerprints and DNA profiles in the cases of uncharged suspects, as established by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, which also established the biometrics commissioner's role, chief police officers are, in exceptional circumstances, allowed to make a NSD to retain this material for longer. These decisions must be examined by the commissioner, however.

MacGregor reported that 217 applications for NSDs had been made by 31 October 2015, with 117 being approved internally by police and forwarded to him as biometrics commissioner. In turn, he approved just 73 of these requests because several were made outside the permitted time limits, while others had been approved by police officers too junior to legally do so.

He added: “At the date of my 2015 Report it was my understanding that it was possible that NSDs would have been applied for in about 45 of the cases that were at that time thought to have expired by 31 October 2015, it is now my understanding that applications for NSDs would undoubtedly have been made in at least 108 of the cases that had in fact expired by 31 March 2016 and that the actual figure might well have been appreciably larger.”

This is the last report that MacGregor, the first person appointed to the role, will write as biometrics commissioner because his two-year term, which was extended until 31 May so he could complete his additional report, is all but over. No decision has yet been made on his replacement. ®


* Purdah is a period in the immediate runup to elections in the UK in which the government and Civil Service are barred from making "controversial" announcements which could affect the results of the election. Its exact terms are set out in guidance published by the Cabinet Office, which in the case of the EU referendum is available here. (PDF)

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