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UK Home Office seeks secret settlements over unlawful DNA retention

Delete all the docs you want, Theresa, the internet never forgets…

Exclusive The UK Home Office is trying to keep secret three out-of-court settlements with claimants who allege the police unlawfully retained their biometric details.

Problems affecting Blighty's ageing Police National Computer (PNC) are an open secret.

Yet the Home Office's reaction to allegations of impropriety – to treat them as purely political attacks – has led to the department trying to stifle all public knowledge of its failures to address issues affecting the police's retention and use of DNA profiles and fingerprints.

The independent Biometrics Commissioner, Alastair MacGregor QC, is charged with overseeing the State's use of biometric data. He has repeatedly raised problems with the recording of arrestees' biometrics and the PNC's biometrics functions, which are still based on the 1970s mainframe where the PNC was first installed,

In his annual report for 2015 (PDF), the commish wrote that, given the PNC's “limitations”, it was “always inevitable that some 'wrongful' retentions and deletions would occur and this has proved to be the case.”

“It seems likely,” continued MacGregor's report, “that thousands of profiles and prints which should have been deleted have in fact been retained.”

He further reported: “It was suggested that, on a 'worst case' estimate, [one PNC problem] could have led to unlawful retention in about 140,000 cases” although the “true figure was likely to be very much smaller.”

It was at a National DNA Database Strategy Board meeting, held in Birmingham on 24 September 2015, that the Home Office's wonks talked about the three cases which the department was trying to settle out of court. The minutes of that meeting were published on 15 March this year (currently if you navigate to that link you'll see the minutes of a 2014 meeting), proving the existence of those ongoing attempts to reach settlements.

Unfortunately, those minutes have now mysteriously disappeared from the gov.UK site. The Home Office has not offered an explanation to The Register about the disappearance of these minutes. It would be a terrible shame if the public were unable to read them – though, of course, cached versions of the web page are still accessible.

El Reg has also located a copy of the original minutes and has made them available online, here (PDF).

These caches are damning for the Home Office, confirming the existence of three cases in which the department is “attempting to reach a settlement” with "no relevant convictions" - innocent people – and adding that, in a further three cases, “argument is proceeding on whether Home Office or MPS should be the defendant.”

When questioned by The Register, the Home Office said only that “it would be inappropriate to comment on the cases while legal proceedings are ongoing.

Where are the policies keeping the cops in check?

Much is happening at the Home Office, the department that can't get anything done. The Science and Technology Committee of Parliament gave the Home Office a telling-off last year for delays in bringing forward its original Forensics and Biometrics Strategy, which was not released on its original 2013 publication date. It still had not been published by the end of 2014, nor by the end of 2015.

A separate Forensics Strategy has since come forth, but the Biometrics Strategy has not appeared, despite two politely damning reports from the biometrics commish and numerous questions to government.

The minutes of the phantom Birmingham meeting also make mention of the biometrics strategy, recording that “a first draft” had been circulated internally within the Home Office – but it still needed to be aligned with the Forensics Strategy.

The Home Office said it “has been working to develop the strategy, which will be published in due course.” ®

Update

Since the publication of this article, the missing minutes have been republished on gov.UK (PDF) at a different URL.

Update 2

The Home Office declined to offer a statement to The Register, but was adamant that the document was removed as the result of a "technical glitch". It continued to refuse to elaborate on the out-of-court settlements.

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