Human rights campaign group Liberty is suing the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) over its allegedly discriminatory use of the controversial Gangs Matrix, a secret database used to identify, monitor and target individuals whom police consider as involved in gang violence.
Liberty acts on behalf of musician and writer Awate Suleiman and Unjust UK, a community-interest non-profit organization that challenges unfair and discriminatory police practices.
They argue that Matrix violates human rights, data protection law and principles of public law, and that it discriminates against people of color, especially black men and boys.
They also claim that the matrix violates the right to privacy and family life – with sensitive personal data on those in the database widely shared with other public bodies and agencies – as well as the public sector’s duty of equality ( PSED) for public authorities to eliminate discrimination. , harassment and victimization, and advancing equal opportunity.
Of those registered with Matrix, 86.5% are black, Asian or other ethnic minority (BAME), and 79% are black, while only 27% of those convicted of serious youth violence offenses are black.
When individuals are placed on the matrix, they are assigned an automated risk score, called a “harm score”. Once a Prejudice Score has been assigned, each so-called “gang name” is then labeled in red, orange, or green. Those with a red tag are considered the most likely to commit a violent offense, while green nominals pose the lowest risk.
However, although the majority of people on the matrix (65%) are marked as “low risk”, they may be subject to a wide range of enforcement actions, including exclusion from benefits, housing and education, as well as massively increased shutdowns. and-search.
A Amnesty International May 2018 Report found that 40% of people on the matrix have a harm score of zero, meaning that police have no record of their involvement in a violent crime. He also found that less than 5% of individuals were marked red.
The report notes that those included in the Matrix – of which there are around 2,000 at any one time – are subject to “chronic excessive police surveillance”, and that there was a strong perception among those affected that “the police were watching them. ”.
The placement of people on the Matrix is dictated by a series of criteria, which Liberty and others have criticized for being too vague.
For example, while the police may consider past arrests or convictions, many people are included in the matrix because they themselves are victims of violence (75%, according to the Amnesty report) or because ‘they are in contact with other suspected gang members.
Information about “gang names” is also gleaned from monitoring their social media accounts.
“We all want to feel safe in our communities, but the gang matrix isn’t about protecting us – it’s about keeping tabs on people and controlling them, with communities of color and black people being the most affected,” said Liberty attorney Lana Adamou.
“The matrix of gangs is heavily fueled by racist stereotypes, based on who people are friends with, their family members, where they live and where they go.
“Secret databases that risk excluding young black men from society based on racist assumptions are not a solution to serious violence – they are part of the problem.”
A major problem with the matrix is that, despite the widespread sharing of data with other public bodies, those on it are not forcibly informed of their inclusion and have no mechanism by which they can challenge their inclusion. or otherwise request a review of the data held about them to verify its accuracy.
Suleiman – who only received confirmation from the MPS that he was not on The Matrix in December 2021 after two years of trying to get an answer – said: ‘The fact that I had to threaten the police of a judicial review before they confirm if I was on Matrix isn’t good enough and another indication of the Met’s intent to secretly surveil young black people.
“These practices were normal in colonial times, when British officers kept meticulous records of the people they terrorized and abused, but are contrary to the kind of society we are meant to live in today.”
In November 2018, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) issued a 27-page enforcement notice to MPS for a serious breach of data protection law resulting from its use of Matrix.
“There is no evidence that the MPS has considered at any time the obvious privacy/data protection and equality impacts resulting from the processing, whether through formal impact assessments or otherwise. “, said the to remark. “Basic data protection practices were not followed.”
The ICO concluded that the sharing of data “goes beyond what is reasonably necessary to achieve the legitimate objectives of the MPS of preventing and detecting crime and prosecuting offenders”, adding: “It does not It is not necessary for the MPS to share such large amounts of personal data with such a wide range of third parties.
On whether the ICO was satisfied that the MPS had met the notice requirements and whether it had any continuing concerns, an ICO spokesperson said: “We have made it clear to the MPS that if there was a worthwhile purpose for maintaining the Matrix Gangs, key data sharing and retention issues needed to be addressed, and governance, policies, and procedures needed to be improved.
“In February 2020, after reviewing the evidence provided by the MPS, we were satisfied that the conditions of the notice of execution were met.”
The measures the MPS was supposed to put in place included carrying out a data protection impact assessment, implementing a retention schedule to determine how and when data subjects should be removed from the matrix , and carrying out a comprehensive review of how matrix information is shared, as well as the legal basis for this.
“The underground nature of Gangs Matrix needs to be questioned,” said Katrina Ffrench, founder of Unjust UK. “Everyone has the right to be watched fairly and treated equally before the law. Hopefully, the Matrix wrongs that have been going on for a decade can be righted by bringing this case.
The Met was also asked to comment on the legal actionas well as its progress against the ICO Notice, but Computer Weekly had received no response at the time of publication.
The Matrix was created in the aftermath of the 2011 London Riots, which then-Prime Minister David Cameron and other senior government officials claimed were orchestrated by gangs.
Although no subsequent review – including those of the MPS itself or the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel set up by Cameron – has ever been able to confirm any of these claims, the Matrix became operational in early 2012.