Botched Electronic Surveillance Sees Innocent People Arrested

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Electronic surveillance watchdog warns of “grave” repercussions for people wrongly identified as suspects. 

Innocent people have faced police investigation after electronic surveillance technology has wrongly identified them as suspects involved in serious crimes.

This is following errors made by internet service providers (ISPs), such as telecoms companies, police and other public bodies gathering intelligence. The innocent suspects have been questioned by police, had computer equipment confiscated and even faced arrest.

The Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (IPCO), responsible for regulating and overseeing how public authorities use investigatory laws granted to them under existing law, has issued a warning that the errors have had potentially “grave” repercussions on the individuals.

According to the report by Adrian Fuller, IPCO commissioner, police and other government agencies have reported 24 serious errors in accessing the public’s email, web browsing and phone history from telephone and internet providers.

The report revealed that 19 people were wrongly arrested and that police visited work or home addresses of another ten people. It was also revealed that welfare checks on six vulnerable people were delayed following errors by public bodies accessing private internet, phone and email data.

Related: UK Police Use of Facial Recognition to be Investigated by ICO

Covering 2017, Fulford’s report highlighted the potentially serious consequences for the wrongly suspected individuals. For example, when people are subject to forensic analysis they can often be left without access to their computer, tablets and telephones.

On the impact of errors, Fulford wrote: “This is particularly evident when homes or offices are searched and the nature of the investigation is revealed to members of the individual’s family and his or her neighbours or employer.

“Children are at risk of being taken into care, and individuals in notifiable and other occupations may be suspended or dismissed. Strict bail conditions can result in a suspect having to leave his or her home.

“Often, it is only when investigators find nothing of suspicion that consideration is given to the possibility that authorities may have made an error transcribing the information which links an address or a device to communications data gathered through electronic surveillance.”

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When compared to the number of communications data gathered by public bodies annually (750,000), which are self-reported by police and other public bodies, the amount of errors is quite small. However, the consequences for those involved can have a severe impact on their lives.

Incidents of misinterpreted information has seen an innocent family accused of the sexual exploitation of children, and another person arrested and interviewed over a dead body that had been left.

The report revealed that many of the errors were due to typing errors as much of the information required to order the disclosure of internet or phone records has to be typed into computer systems manually.

One innocent man was arrested and interviewed by police investigating sexualised chats on social media with a young child after police mistyped the suspect’s online username while accessing his subscriber information.

Another incident saw investigators, looking into the uploading of illegal images, contact the chairman of a company that had no involvement in the crime after an ISP confused two companies with similar names.

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