Today the impact of poor data protection was made hauntingly clear. A series of fundamental errors by the Met Police and the Crown Prosecution Service led to a child witness having their details divulged to the very gang members that he were speaking out against. The Met Police – who had promised the child that his anonymity would be protected – and the Crown Prosecution Service have been forced to pay a family more than £600,000 in compensation after the 16 year old and his family were subject to a campaign of intimidation and harrasment.
As a consequence of the incident, the entire family had to be relocated under the witness protection scheme after threats were directed at them. In a statement the boy, his mother, and her partner said that they had been “left with no option but to leave their homes, careers, families and friends without even being able to say goodbye”.
BBC Radio 4’s Today programme heard from the family’s solicitor: “The boy witnessed a violent gang attack and he agreed to provide a statement to the police on the express promise that his identity would not be revealed to the suspects. Through a series of individual and systematic failings, his name and address were revealed to the criminal gang and the family began to experience a campaign of harassment and intimidation, and when they brought their concerns to the attention of the Metropolitan Police it was denied that their identity had been revealed.”
This case highlights the very real and potentially dangerous risks that can arise if personal information is not protected properly. Whether it is people coming forward to help the police or discussing medical issues with their doctor, if the public cannot trust the authorities to keep information private there is a real risk they will not want to say anything in future.
This failing by the Met Police follows an admission from Scotland Yard that the police had inadvertently shared the email addresses or more than 1,000 victims of crime with other victims. Although no other contact details were shared the police were forced to contact everyone affected to apologise.
Big Brother Watch is alarmed to note the increasing number of incidents where public bodies are failing to ensure that our data and personal information is kept confidential. The Met Police and the Crown Prosecution Service should be the leading examples in data protection and have the ability to provide concrete assurances that witnesses can approach the police safely and securely. The series of fundamental errors by the police should be fully investigated and those responsible should be held to account.
We have written to the Information Commissioner’s office to ask if this incident has been reported or investigated.