How UK Police Attempted To Misuse Official Databases To Smear Disaster Victims
from the if-they-can,-they-will dept
A recent scandal in the UK concerned the country’s worst sporting disaster, when 96 football/soccer fans were crushed to death at a stadium in Hillsborough in 1989. Prime Minister David Cameron issued an official apology to the families of the victims for the fact that the safety measures at the ground were known to be inadequate, and that police and emergency services had tried to deflect the blame for the disaster onto fans.
One way the police did this was by falsifying statements made to them after the disaster, to remove negative comments about how they had handled the situation. But another way involved trying to suggest the deaths were caused in part by the drunken behavior of fans. One attempt to bolster this view apparently involved the use of the UK’s main Police National Computer system. Here’s what the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel (pdf) wrote about new evidence that had come to light:
2.5.112 The document indicates that a Police National Computer (PNC) check was conducted on all who died at Hillsborough for whom a blood alcohol reading above zero was recorded. It includes a handwritten list of the names, dates of birth, blood alcohol readings and home addresses of 51 of the deceased and provides screen-prints apparently drawn from the PNC. A summary of the results appears on the front page, establishing the number ‘with cons’ (convictions).
The idea was clearly to point to previous convictions as evidence that many of those who died were in some way responsible for the deaths of themselves and others because of drunkenness. As TJ McIntyre emphasizes in a blog post on this revelation:
This illustrates an important point that privacy campaigners have been making for a long time: centralised databases of this type can and will be abused, and the power to trawl databases for information on individuals — in effect, to manufacture a case against them — is a dangerous one. It’s not hard to imagine how data retention records might be abused in a similar way in future.
Although the UK government’s proposed “Snooper’s Charter” foresees the creation of distributed databases of information about every citizen’s online activities, it will be possible to carry out “filters” — searches — across them, unifying them into a single, virtual centralized database. As McIntyre notes, it’s easy to imagine these hugely-detailed records being trawled for information and then used by the police to cover up their own blunders in the future, or to support a flimsy case against someone, in exactly the same way that those involved in the Hillsborough disaster tried to do with the existing PNC database. The latest revelations of database misuse are another compelling reason not to bring in the intrusive and ineffective approach that lies at the heart of the UK government’s plans.