Former head of police IT on ID cards, police databases, and surveillance

Phillip Webb, a former head of the Police Information Technology Organisation – now subsumed into the National Policing Improvement Agency – says there needs to be more public debate over the increasing use – and potential misuse – of surveillance technologies such as automatic number-plate recognition systems.

He warned that “when something dreadful goes wrong” it may be too late to regain public confidence in police surveillance systems.

Webb was the Chief Executive of PITO for six years until April 2007. PITO was a central police IT organisation that bought systems to be deployed nationally. Webb told the Government IT Summit in May 2007 that there is strong public support for legislation that allows police to collect and retain data on individuals to an extent that other countries do not allow.

But he said that this trust among the public may be lost “when something dreadful happens”. He said later that he was referring to the possibility that insiders and others could misuse systems, thus revealing to the public how extensive is the information kept on individuals, whether they are suspects or not.

He said the automatic number-plate recognition system – which is said to be the largest Oracle database in Europe – is a “wonderful investigative tool” and can be used to track a vehicle’s movements over several months, whether or not the driver is a criminal.

It could be misused by insiders to track the movements of well-known people such as particular politicians.

He told the conference: “We joke about this being the most observed society in the world in the sense of CCTV cameras in this country but it’s isn’t just CCTV cameras”. He said of technologies such as automatic number plate recognition systems and electronic fingerprints that “these are fine if you are actually protecting society from dangerous people” but they are also “collecting information, in surveillance terms, all the time and it is essential that that information is applied correctly, is used correctly and is not misused”.

He added: “Therefore we must be confident in the legislation which actually sets up the use of that information and the controls in place to prevent its being misused.”

Webb said there was a lack of public debate over the growing use and implications of survillance technologies.

“Getting the public to engage has been a big problem. They probably will engage when something dreadful goes wrong but that is probably going to be too late because, as I said before, if we lose the trust of the public getting that trust back will be extremely difficult. We are in danger of losing that trust if we are not careful …

“People in this country seem to be accepting it [the growing use of surveillance technologies] in a very quiet manner.

“Many of the things we have introduced here particularly in terms of CCTV in America are perceived in almost exactly the opposite manner: they are seen as intruding into peoples’ public space. Today, in this country, CCTV cameras are generally seen as a source of assurance.”

He said that policing is by consent – public trust in the institution of law and order.

“In terms of the change that’s occurred in British society over the last 10-15 years, we have moved away very much from protecting the rights of the individuals to a society which today tries to protect society from dangerous people…

“There are very strong drivers to ensure we can share information – and in fact sharing it with government departments, agencies and, increasingly, internationally. The legislation lags behind that quite considerably. In fact ensuring that we can provide that sharing and maintain that [public] trust is a key issue…

“In terms of gathering information there are some pretty frightening statistics: today 20% of the male population of this country have had their fingerprints taken because at some stage or another they have been arrested for an offence – and 12% of the female population. That’s a pretty high proportion by anyone’s standard – 6.7 million sets of fingerprints on individuals, including one in five males…

“Most people say: ‘I am a law-abiding citizen; it does not affect me; I do not mind people taking that information.’ That’s fine but we are one of the few countries in the Western world which allow people on arrest to have their fingerprints, their DNA, and their photograph taken, and after Soham [the murder by Ian Huntley of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman], since April 5th 2005, we are now allowed to keep that information indefinitely.

“Very few other countries in the Western world allow that. Most of them operate the same principle we used to: that if [suspects] are charged you can keep the [biometric] information but you cannot keep it if they are not charged. Today we are allowed to keep it.

“That’s moving us into a domain where we are actually collecting information and keeping it on the criminal records database indefinitely. It may be that someone can say to you that you don’t have a criminal record. But you [may be] on the database. That’s something people need to recognise.

“That law was brought in with strong support from the public. But probably most people did not recognise the relevance. That’s the problem. People have to be much better educated, much more aware of some of the implications of some of the laws we’re bringing in.

“Some people are asking for their fingerprints to be removed because they weren’t charged. But individual police forces are allowed to keep them because the law says they can. They would have to have a very good reason to want to remove it.”

He described the automatic number-plate recognition system as a particularly useful tool.

“Once upon a time it was introduced purely to detect stolen cars. That was all it was supposed to do. Today fixed cameras, every time a vehicle goes by, they take a record of you, it is stored on a big database. Makes a wonderful investigative tool. After the event you can say: ‘Which vehicles moved in this area in the last hour?’ Equally you can ask it: where has this vehicle been in the last six months? That’s every vehicle, not just criminals’ vehicles…”

Webb also answered questions from the audience about ID cards – the National Identity Register in particular.

He said that in the early days of the ID Cards project law enforcement and other agencies were not heavily involved in the exercise and “there wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm within the police for identity cards”.

But he said police realise that information collected for the ID cards scheme could be of “huge value to us” if the information is in a form police can use. “Today we have 1.2 million unknown marks on our fingerprint database of criminals who have been involved in crime but we don’t know who they are. If I were allowed to access that [ID cards information] as far as the policing aspect is concerned, [it] would be of huge assistance to us.

“But legally whether or not we should or shouldn’t is a debate to be had… A supertool it could be.”

Related article: Data misuse threat to trust in police IT