The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has fined Newham Council £145,000 for a data breach London’s Gangs Matrix database.
This follows an investigation that found the council had inadvertently disclosed personal information of more than 200 people who featured on the database, which is run by the Metropolitan Police to record information on alleged gang members.
An ICO investigation found that on 26 January 2017, a Newham Council employee sent an email to 44 recipients that contained both redacted and unredacted versions of the Gangs Matrix. These had previously been sent to the council by the Metropolitan Police as part of its work with partners to tackle gang violence.
The 44 recipients included the council’s Youth Offending Team and external organisations including a voluntary agency.
As a result of the breach, information was shared relating to 203 people. This included dates of birth, home addresses, and information on whether they were a prolific firearms offender or knife carrier, as well as their alleged associated gang.
Subsequently, over the following months rival gang members obtained photographs of this information via the social media platform Snapchat. The Gangs Matrix featured in the photographs was the unredacted version that had been disclosed by Newham Council to partners in January 2017.
In 2017, there were a number of incidents of serious gang violence in Newham, victims of which included people who featured on the inappropriately shared Gangs Matrix.
The ICO said it is not possible to say whether the data breach was the direct cause of any of the of violence, but that it does highlight the significant harm and distress that can be caused when this type of sensitive personal information is not kept secure.
Newham did not report the data breach to the ICO, and although it conducted an internal investigation, this did not begin until December 2017, a significant time after it became aware of the breach.
Additionally, the ICO found that the council did not have any specific sharing agreements, policy or guidance in place on how its own staff and partner organisations should handle and use the Gangs Matrix databases securely.
ICO Deputy Commissioner James Dipple-Johnstone said: “We recognise there is a national concern about violent gang crime and the importance of tackling it. We also recognise the challenges of public authorities in doing this. Appropriate sharing of information has its part to play in this challenge but it must be done lawfully and safely.
“Our investigation concluded that it was unnecessary, unfair and excessive for Newham Council to have shared the unredacted database with a large number of people and organisations, when a redacted version was readily available. The risks associated with such a transfer of sensitive information should have been obvious.”
Rebuke for police
The investigation into Newham Council was part of a wider inquiry into the use of the Gangs Matrix by the Metropolitan Police, which led to a rebuke for a series of shortcomings in how it had been used.
The ICO issued an enforcement notice in November 2018, compelling it to make changes to the database to comply with data protection laws, including providing better arrangements for sharing the Matrix with partner agencies.
The database has also been the subject of a highly critical review by the office of Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, which said its representation of young black men is disproportionate to the likelihood of them being involved in gang violence.
A wider ICO investigation into police use of Matrix type databases continues.
Image by rchris7702, CC BY 2.0 through flickr