Britain’s Home Secretary has come under fire after 150,000 arrest records were accidentally deleted from the database that shares mission-critical information between police and criminal justice services across the country.
The files were wiped from the Police National Computer (PNC) last week due to an error, rather than a deliberate cyber hack, in a mass erasure of biometric data such as DNA and fingerprints, the Times of London reported on Friday.
The Times later reported that up to 400,000 records may have been deleted.
The opposition Labour Party reacted strongly to the initial data loss report.
Writing on Twitter, Labour’s shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds called on Home Secretary Priti Patel to “show some overdue leadership and account for yet another terrible error on her watch.”
He also called on the government to “come clean about the causes and scale of this security breach.”
In a video posted on the social media platform, he said Patel must have previously known about the data error otherwise The Times could not have run the story.
He called on her to be “open and transparent,” and sought clarification over the “three different explanations that have come out today.”
These were, he said, that the data breach was due to a software bug, that it had happened during a data weeding process, or that it had occurred during a housekeeping exercise.
In a statement, also posted on Twitter, Thomas-Symonds described the data deletion as an “extraordinarily serious security breach that presents huge dangers for the public.”
My statement in response to today’s report in @thetimes that 150,000 arrest records have been deleted by the Home Office. This is an extraordinarily serious security breach and the public deserves immediate answers: pic.twitter.com/5e4fLcS4ki
— Nick Thomas-Symonds MP (@NickTorfaen) January 15, 2021
Policing Minister Kit Malthouse, however, played down the threat posed by the error.
“Earlier this week, a standard housekeeping process that runs on the Police National Computer deleted a number of records in error. A fast time review has identified the problem and corrected the process so it cannot happen again,” he reportedly said.
“The Home Office, NPCC [National Police Chiefs’ Council] and other law enforcement partners are working at pace to recover the data,” he added.
“While the loss relates to individuals who were arrested and then released with no further action, I have asked officials and the police to confirm their initial assessment that there is no threat to public safety. I will provide further updates as we conclude our work.”
The breach is concerning because the lost data could have proved key to catching criminals in the future if the deleted records relate to people who later go on to offend.
These are likely to be “a few people, a handful,” Stuart Hyde, the former chief constable of Cumbria Police in England’s North West, told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program.
However, he said the deletion of the equivalent of around a quarter of the UK’s yearly 600,000 to 700,000 arrest records still represents a risk.
“Without going through each and every case, it would be hard to make that judgement, but that risk exists nonetheless,” he said. “It’s both a risk to public safety, and a risk to safeguarding of vulnerable people across the country.”
Hyde played down any responsibility on the part of the police themselves over the lost data.
“The providers of the software to the police need to be held to account for why this happened,” he said. “The police don’t design software; that’s down to the companies.”
This is the second time in the last three months the PNC has met with problems.
In October last year, it suffered a 10-hour blackout of its normal 24/7 availability after an engineer unplugged it.
The Home Office did not respond to a request for comment.