June 12 2024
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New details revealed about Met scheme to ‘scour’ children’s social media for signs of criminality

New details revealed about Met scheme to ‘scour’ children’s social media for signs of criminality

UK drill crew 67. Photo: @6ix7Official

The Metropolitan Police failed to consult youth violence experts on a ‘large-scale’ profiling scheme scouring social media sites to collect children’s personal data in an attempt to prevent gang crime. Project Alpha was launched by the Met in June 2019 with funding from the Home Office, with the aim of intelligence-gathering through social media. This follows concerns over the force’s much criticised gang database known as Matrix (as reported on the Justice Gap) which listed potential gang members, even if they had never committed an offence, and were not told about their inclusion on this list.

A Freedom of Information request by Wil Crisp of Point Source has revealed that the Met claimed to have consulted several charities and youth violence experts around the scheme during a public consultation. However, three of the organisations referenced by the Met have since confirmed to the Guardian that there was no such consultation.

The Met has lauded the benefits of the project which involves analysis of Drill music videos and alleged drug dealing via Instagram and Snapchat. Writing for the College of Policing, PC Michael Railton who is involved with the scheme said by analysing music videos they ‘have identified threats and proactively intervened to prevent escalation of violence’. ‘Met blunders over an earlier anti-gangs database helped fuel concerns about Project Alpha, the privacy of children, and police focusing on young black children for signs of criminality,’ tweeted Crisp.

Emmanuelle Andrews, campaigns director of the civil liberties group Liberty, tweeted: ‘Criminalising black friendships by scouring social media for the various creative ways young people express themselves, monitoring them, harassing them & subjecting them to intense surveillance that impacts their future life chances does not solve serious violence.’

The Justice Gap has seen the Met’s heavily redacted data protection impact assessment which addresses privacy issues around the initiative. ‘The reduction of serious violence is a key priority in London following an increase in knife and gun crime in the last two years,’ the document says. ‘Gangs are a significant contributor to violence in London and their involvement in violence increases when looking at the most serious and harmful violence,’ it says. The document asserts that the Met ‘will not process exhaustive amounts of personal information on the loose premise that it may be useful now or in the future (excessive data collection is also a breach of the DPA 35(2)(b))’.

However the Met acknowledges Project Alpha ‘will carry out profiling on a large scale’ focussing ‘on males between the ages of 15 and 21’. It says the scheme has been designed to ‘combine, compare, or match data from multiple sources’ and uses new technologies or the ‘novel use of existing technologies’. The document makes clear that individuals won’t be informed they are ‘subject to [the] interest’ of the scheme ‘as this may impact on their behaviour and result in more offending’.

In response to the Guardian, the Met responded that they would not in fact be profiling children on a large scale, and would not be focusing on any particular group. One of the groups referenced in the document, anti-knife crime charity the Ben Kinsella Trust, told the Guardian: ‘Although we met with officers from Project Alpha, we were never formally asked to participate in a stakeholder consultation before the project was launched.’

In a statement the Met said: ‘As we do not ‘profile on a large scale’ we cannot provide any demographic of individuals who are involved in uploading harmful content online. We do not seek to identify personal information about those posting the videos and as such we hold limited personal data (predominantly just the videos themselves).’

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office for Police and Crime (Mopac) said they would be on alert for Project Alpha rights breaches: ‘[The] mayor is working closely with the Met police to tackle online content which seeks to glorify and incite violent crime,’ they said. ‘Sadiq will continue to hold the Met to account to ensure that all police powers are used proportionately and that lessons have been learned in all its work following the review of the gangs violence matrix’.


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