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Data Protection and the Public Interest in Fighting Crime – High Court Ruling

The clear public interest in effectively fighting crime sometimes requires police forces to share personal details of offenders with those at risk of becoming their victims. As a High Court case showed, however, the right of individuals not to have their data disseminated to all and sundry has to be carefully placed in the balance.

The case concerned a vulnerable 16-year-old girl who had gone missing from home on numerous occasions and had been excluded from school. She had convictions for shoplifting and assault and, according to the police, had been reported for more than 50 incidents of violence, theft or anti-social behaviour.

In those circumstances, the police disclosed data concerning the teenager, including her full name, date of birth, photo and details of her criminal behaviour, to a business crime reduction partnership (BCRP) whose members included a large number of local businesses. The principal function of the BCRP was to operate a scheme by which known troublemakers could be excluded from members’ premises.

The teenager challenged the disclosures of her sensitive personal data, which were made under an information sharing agreement (ISA) between the police and the BCRP, arguing that they were disproportionate and amounted to a breach of her rights under the Data Protection Act 2018.

In ruling on the matter, the Court noted that that there were elements of the ISA that could have been better drafted. However, viewed on a holistic basis, the safeguards put in place to protect the teenager’s rights were adequate. The data was, amongst other things, stored by the BCRP on an encrypted and password-protected intranet and was only accessible to trained and vetted people, in practice mainly security guards assigned to protect commercial premises.

Disclosures made to a business forum under an earlier ISA were also alleged by the teenager’s lawyers to have breached the Data Protection Act 1998. In that case, the Court found that her rights had been breached by the sharing of information that revealed her vulnerability to child sex exploitation. In all other respects, however, her judicial review challenge was dismissed.