Metropolitan Police documents say the force collected ‘personal data of children’ from social media sites as part of a ‘large-scale profiling’ scheme.
The Met says the program, known as Alpha Project, helps address serious violence, intelligence collected identifies offenders and secures removal of videos advocating stabbings and shootings on platforms such as YouTube.
The unit, made up of more than 30 staff and launched in 2019 with funding from the Home Office, scours social media sites for drilling music videos and other content.
A Met document, seen by the Guardian, says the project will “perform large-scale profiling”, with men aged 15 to 21 at the center of the project. After being questioned, the force said it was a mistake.
The blunders encountered on an earlier anti-gang database have helped fuel concerns about Project Alpha, children’s privacy and police focusing on young black children for signs of criminality.
Stafford Scott, a community campaign veteran, said he feared the project was part of an ongoing assault on young black people. “Young people use social media to magnify their lived experience. It’s a projection tool, you can’t rely on it for detection,” he said. “It’s racially motivated, racially motivated and involves racial stereotypes.”
The Met says it scoured the system for signs of racial bias in an equality impact assessment and found none.
Project Alpha started in June 2019 and is supported by the Home Office, which has provided nearly £5million. Although heavily redacted, the new document dated December 2020 provides new details.
It is a data protection impact assessment and includes questions examining compliance with data protection laws and principles, as well as responses from those managing the program. It was first obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request from the investigative organization Point source.
The document says men between the ages of 15 and 21 will be targeted and promises not to share information about young people without a “compelling” reason.
To the question “will there be systematic surveillance or profiling on a large scale or in a public place? the answer is “yes”, but the rest of the answer is largely masked.
To the question “will the project carry out large-scale profiling?”, the box of “yes” was checked by the Met. The response continues: “The meaning of large scale is not defined in the Data Protection Act 2018. But it may include activities such as using existing data to identify [an] person for operational or review purposes.
When asked if the project “will process personal data of children for profiling or automated decision-making purposes…or for marketing purposes…”, the police replied “yes” and added: “The project is focused on reducing serious youth violence and many of those directly or indirectly involving are under 18 years of age. A full name and gang affiliation must be registered, he says.
In its first statement to the Guardian about the document, the Met said: “The inclusion of the 15-21 year old demographic[s] former was a mistake. As we do not engage in ‘wide-scale profiling’, we cannot provide demographic data about those involved in downloading harmful content online. We do not seek to identify any personal information about those posting the videos and as such we hold limited personal data (mainly only the videos themselves).
Asked why officers had ticked ‘yes’ in a box asking if the project would ‘perform large-scale profiling’, the Met added: ‘The tick in the yes box in point 10 of this first response is incorrect. .”
The force declined to give the number or age of those Alpha is watching, or general criteria such as the need to suspect an individual.
The document says the program was designed to “combine, compare, or match data from multiple sources” and uses new technologies or the “new use of existing technologies.”
It says gangs are responsible for four in 10 non-domestic and terrorist murders, six in 10 shootings and one in five non-domestic stabbings where the victim is 25 years of age or younger.
In the document, the police justify their decision not to tell the young people that they are “subject to [the] the interest of the Alpha project because it can have an impact on their behavior and lead to more crimes”.
Trust in the Met was damaged after the Information Commissioner criticized him for his gang matrix and issued an execution notice in 2018. The matrix, listing suspected gang members and their risk of committing or being victimized by violence, was branded racist by Amnesty International and after pressure the Met said he had changed it.
Emmanuelle Andrews, of human rights group Liberty, said: “This surveillance and tracking of young people and children is deeply concerning, impacting their right to express themselves and participate in friendly and community networks. This can have serious consequences for their future, such as their ability to access housing, education and work.
“Police surveillance of the type carried out by the Met under Project Alpha and the gang matrix does not address the causes of serious violence – it only serves to criminalize and harass young people, especially young people. young black men and boys.”
In an interview with the College of Policing, Alpha Project Leader PC Michael Railton, hailed his blessings. “After decoding the hyper-local context of the lyrics, hand gestures and symbolism of visual content used by aspiring rappers, we identified threats and proactively intervened to prevent the escalation of violence,” did he declare.
The encounter told the Information Commissioner that Alpha has helped identify intelligence about violence gleaned from social media and people who commit crimes, as well as track down wanted offenders: “The team collects ‘open source’ intelligence which is information collected from social media accounts (private and open), websites, and media.They also collect post-event information, such as where gang-related incidents occurred and relevant online comments.
“The project to date has brought to light threats and risks that otherwise would not have been identified by other policing methods.”