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Borough fined for gang matrix data breach

The UK data privacy regulator the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has fined the London Borough of Newham £145,000 for disclosing the personal information of 203 people who featured on a police intelligence database. The database is known as the ‘Gangs Matrix’ for recording details of alleged gang members.

The ICO found that in January 2017, before a meeting, a Newham employee sent an email to 44 recipients that contained redacted and unredacted versions of the matrix. These had been sent to the council by the Metropolitan Police as part of its work with partners to tackle gang violence. The 44 included the council’s Youth Offending Team – in principle, sensible, the ICO acknowledged – besides outside bodies, including a voluntary agency, that work on gang related crime.

As a result of the breach, information was shared relating to 203 people. This included dates of birth, home addresses, and details of whether they were a prolific firearms offender or knife carrier, as well as their alleged associated gang.

The ICO found that in May and September 2017, two rival gang members separately had obtained photographs of this information via the social media platform Snapchat; and told their probation officer. The Gangs Matrix featured in the photographs was the unredacted version as disclosed by Newham Council to partners in January 2017. Victims of gang violence in 2017 – including murder by shooting – included people who featured on the inappropriately shared Gangs Matrix. The ICO has not found how the gang members got the photo; and said it is not possible to say whether there was a connection between any incidents of violence and the data breach.

Newham has apologised for what it called ‘a serious administrative error’. Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz said: “On behalf of Newham Council I accept the seriousness of the unredacted gangs matrix list being distributed on this single occasion in January 2017 and am sorry that it happened. While there were information sharing protocols in place at the time, clearly they could have been better. The Information Commissioner has recognised that the breach was not deliberate and we welcome that.

“Since becoming Mayor in May last year I have been embedding an enhanced culture of safeguarding across the organisation and this includes the internal control of sensitive safeguarding data in line with ICO requirements and new data protection regimes. The Council is committed to working with our trusted multi-agency partners to make Newham a child-centred borough where young people can feel safe and protected. The findings of the Commissioner further underlines my commitment to that.”

James Dipple-Johnstone, Deputy Commissioner, 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.”

Newham did not report the data breach to the ICO. While the council did do their own internal investigation, it did not start until December 2017, a time after they became aware of the breach. The ICO found that the council did not have any specific sharing agreements, policy or guidance in place to determine how its own staff and partner organisations should handle and use the Gangs Matrix databases securely.

Mr Dipple-Johnstone added: “This is a reminder for organisations handling and sharing sensitive information to make sure they have suitable processes, training and governance in place to ensure they meet their accountability obligations. Data protection is not a barrier for information sharing but it needs to be compliant with the law. One of the ways in doing this is by conducting data protection assessments. We have a data sharing code which provides guidance on how to share data safely and proportionately, and we will soon be publishing an updated code.

“Ultimately, personal information must be processed lawfully, fairly, proportionately and securely, so the community can have confidence that their information is being used in an appropriate way.”

Due to the timing of the data breach, the fine has been issued under the previous law, the Data Protection Act 1998, which set a maximum fine of £500,000; and not the General Data Protection Regulation and 2018 Data Protection Act that replaced it in May 2018.

The investigation into Newham was part of a wider inquiry into the use of the Gangs Matrix by the Met Police. The ICO issued an enforcement notice to the Met in November 2018, compelling them to make changes to the Matrix so it complies with data protection laws.

For the ICO full ruling visit the regulator’s website.


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