The fatal conceit of the Police National Database


The Police National Database (PND) will go live next week. When it does, the details of some 10-15 million people will be conveniently stored in one place, available to over 12,000 police personnel. Jennie Cronin, director at the National Police Improvement Agency (NPIA), says of the new database, “To share intelligence carries some risks, but choosing not to share poses a far greater risk to public protection”. This statement merits some examination.

Any database is vulnerable to being compromised. Information may be leaked, or people who are not police officers or staff may somehow gain access. The PND does, however, make it less likely that repeat offenders slip through the cracks. A compelling argument might be made that those who have broken the law have abrogated some of their right to privacy, and may be exposed to risk if this benefits the law-abiding.

Note the maths of Ms Cronin’s statements, though. There are 9.2 million people in the UK with criminal records. That means that up to 6 million people without criminal records will be on the PND. Ms Cronin says that many of these people are victims. A spokesman for the NPIA says that others have been convicted of offences too minor to warrant a record.

Ms Cronin has offered a vague explanation for storing victims’ data, claiming that keeping the records will help identify repeat victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. To what end, she does not say; victims of assault or abuse are already made aware of counseling options when they make their statements. Moreover, no explanation is given for why the details of petty offenders will be stored. Ms Cronin and the NPIA should justify why they are exposing 6 million people without criminal records to the risk of a leak and violating their right to privacy. Details will likely emerge as the PND gets online. For the 6 million without criminal records on the database, it may be time to review the Data Protection Act.

UPDATE: the National Policing Improvement Agency has written in to say that this piece contains a factual error. They say Jennie Cronin never said, “many of these people are victims”. In fact, they say that victim data will only be held in a limited number of cases, where it relates to sexual offences for which a court can grant a sexual offences prevention order. We apologize for putting words in Ms Cronin's mouth. This issue is discussed in more detail here.