Database state could go pear-shaped, says police chief

Power corrupts

The boss of UK police technology has warned that government attempts to use surveillance and databases to impose law and order could backfire unless those with access to the system are prevented from abusing the power it gives them.

But authorities are not using the means already available to penalize organisations that abuse information in state databases. Six months after the Criminal Records Bureau bragged it had the powers to punish firms that used police records to discriminate against vulnerable ex-offenders, it is still only giving the firms slaps on the wrists for their offences.

Philip Webb, chief executive of the Police Information Technology Organisation, said: "What we've not got is clear rules for ensuring that data is protected and new data is properly controlled. Custodianship of information is an issue that legislators should address from a national and international level."

The police should be able to use information to protect people from danger he said, and this increasingly meant sharing data with the private sector. The problem was, data was too prone to get into the wrong hands.

"We have guidelines, but that's within the police service. once it's gone outside its more difficult to control," he told the recent Global Identity Infrastructure Summit.

The CRB is the most high profile example of how police data can be abused by the private sector if tight rules on its use are not enforced. Certified private sector agents of the CRB database had routinely abused their power, the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro) reported in January, after receiving 15,000 complaints from ex-offenders in the recent year.

Agents are meant to query the CRB about jobs applications from people working with children or vulnerable adults. But Nacro found agents were illegally searching the CRB database and using the information to discriminate against other job applicants. The CRB subsequently said it acquired powers to de-register agents who abused their power, and started a routine cull as well.

The CRB told The Register yesterday that its routine cull had de-registered 2973 agents who queried the database less than 10 times a year.

Another cull begins in November, when agents who made less than 15 applications in a year will be struck off.

But the CRB has not used its new powers to strike off any new agents who had broken the law by discriminating against ex-offenders. In the twelve months to 1 April 2006, the CRB upheld 2,273 complaints by people about disclosures the authority had made about them.

Not only are those private organisations requesting the checks abusing the system, but the CRB itself is arguably in breach of the law by making the checks on their behalf. The contract to operate the CRB is held by Capita.

Webb said tighter "integration", or data sharing, between the private and public sector was necessary to improve policing. But he said the authorities should be careful not to get carried away.

Public and private CCTV operators, for example, were beginning to integrate their systems: "Video surveillance is seen as a source of reassurance. Will integration change this perception?" he said.

"We have a responsibility to ensure the balance is kept right because if we lose trust, it will be extremely difficult to retrieve," he added. ®

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