Data misuse threat to trust in police IT

Former police IT chief warns against abuse of surveillance data

Potential security breaches by police insiders risk undermining public confidence in law-enforcement surveillance technologies, such as the number plate recognition system and fingerprint database, the former head of police IT has warned.

Phillip Webb, who stepped down as chief executive of the Police IT Organisation in March, said that the potential for insiders or others to misuse information held on police databases could undermine public support for the technology and the laws that allow its use.

Speaking on the growth of electronic surveillance at the Government IT Summit, Webb said that technologies such as automatic number plate recognition systems and electronic fingerprint records were "marvellous tools" that could protect society from dangerous people.

But he said it was essential that information is "applied correctly, is used correctly and is not misused".

Webb said he was concerned, in particular, that insiders and others could misuse the automatic number plate recognition system, which is the largest Oracle database in Europe. He said, for example, that it could be used to track the movements of celebrities or politicians.

The database is able to track a single vehicle's movement over several months, whether or not the driver is a criminal, he said.

Webb also said that the police "would not say no" if given a chance to cross-check 1.2 million unidentified fingerprints taken by police, which are stored electronically, with fingerprints that may be collected by the state as part of the ID cards scheme. But he said a debate needed to be held over "legally whether or not we should".

About 20% of males and 12% of females are on the UK's fingerprint database, including some who do not have criminal records

There is strong public support for legislation that, for example, allows police to collect and retain data on individuals to an extent that other countries do not allow. However, Webb warned that this support might be lost if this information was misused.

There had been a lack of enthusiasm from the public for engaging in a debate over the expanding use of surveillance technologies, he said.

"They probably will engage when something dreadful goes wrong, but that is probably going to be too late. If we lose the trust of the public, getting that trust back will be extremely difficult.

"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.

Police join forces with palm print database >>

Police trial mobile fingerprinting >>

Central European fingerprint database plan draws fire >>

LSE calls for review of ID cards as costs keep rising >>

National Policing Improvement Agency >>

Tony Collins' IT projects blog

Read more on IT risk management