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Human rights campaign group Liberty is taking the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) to court over its allegedly discriminatory use of the controversial Gangs Matrix, a secretive database used to identify, monitor and target individuals the force considers to be involved in gang violence.
Liberty is acting on behalf of musician and writer Awate Suleiman and Unjust UK, a community interest non-profit that challenges unjust and discriminatory policing practice.
They argue that the Matrix breaches human rights, data protection legislation and public law principles, and that it discriminates against people of colour, particularly black men and boys.
They also claim that the Matrix breaches the right to private and family life – with sensitive personal data about those on the database shared broadly with other public bodies and agencies – as well as the Public Sector Equalities Duty (PSED) for public authorities to eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation, and advance equality of opportunity.
Of those on the Matrix, 86.5% are black, Asian or other minority ethnic (BAME), and 79% are black, while just 27% of those convicted of offences related to serious youth violence are black.
When individuals are placed on the Matrix, they are assigned an automated risk score, known as a “harm score”. Once a harm score has been assigned, each so-called “gang nominal” is then labelled as red, amber or green. Those with a red label are deemed most likely to commit a violent offence, while green nominals pose the lowest risk.
However, despite the majority of people on the Matrix (65%) being 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 stop-and-search.
A May 2018 report from Amnesty International found that 40% of people on the Matrix have a harm score of zero, which means the police have no record of them being involved in a violent offence. It also found that less than 5% of individuals were marked as red.
The report noted that people included on the Matrix – of which there are about 2,000 at any given time – are subject to “chronic over-policing”, and that there was a strong perception among those affected that “the police kept an eye on them”.
The placement of people on the Matrix is dictated by a range of criteria, which Liberty and others have criticised for being too vague.
For example, while police may take into account past arrests or convictions, many people are included on the Matrix for being victims of violence themselves (75%, according to the Amnesty report), or for being in contact with other suspected gang members.
Information about “gang nominals” is also gleaned from the monitoring of their social media accounts.
“We all want to feel safe in our communities, but the Gangs Matrix isn’t about keeping us safe – it’s about keeping tabs on and controlling people, with communities of colour and black people worst affected,” said Liberty lawyer Lana Adamou.
“The Gangs Matrix is fuelled heavily by racist stereotypes, based on who people are friends with, who their family members are, where they live, and where they go.
“Secret databases that risk young black men being excluded from society based on racist assumptions are not a solution to serious violence – they are part of the problem.”
A major issue with the Matrix is that, despite the widespread sharing of data with other public bodies, those on it are not informed of their inclusion by the force, and have no mechanism through which they can challenge their inclusion, or otherwise ask for a review of the data held about them to check 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 with judicial review before they would confirm whether I was on the Matrix is not good enough and another indication of the Met’s intention to covertly surveil young black people.
“These practices were normal in colonial times when British officers kept meticulous records of the people they terrorised and abused, but are antithetical to the kind of society we’re meant to live in today.”
In November 2018, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) issued the MPS with a 27-page Enforcement Notice for serious breaches of data protection law resulting from its use of the Matrix.
“There is no evidence that the MPS considered at any time the obvious privacy/data protection and equality impacts arising from the processing, whether by formal Impact Assessments or otherwise,” said the notice. “Basic data protection practice has not been followed.”
The ICO concluded that the data sharing “goes beyond what is reasonably necessary to achieve the MPS’s legitimate purposes in preventing and detecting crime and prosecuting offenders”, adding: “There is no necessity for the MPS to share such large amounts of personal data to such a wide array of third parties.”
On whether the ICO was satisfied the MPS had met the requirements of the notice, and whether it had any on-going concerns, an ICO spokesperson said: “We made it clear to the MPS that while there was a valid purpose for maintaining the Gangs Matrix, key issues of data sharing and retention had to be addressed, and that governance, policies and procedures had to improve.
“In February 2020, after reviewing the evidence provided by the MPS, we were satisfied that the terms of the enforcement notice were met.”
Measures that the MPS was supposed to put in place included conducting a data protection impact assessment, implementing a retention schedule to address how and when data subjects should be removed from the Matrix, and conducting a full review of how information on the Matrix is shared, as well as the legal basis for this.
“The clandestine nature of the Gangs Matrix must be challenged,” said Katrina Ffrench, founder of Unjust UK. “Everyone has a right to be policed fairly and treated equally before the law. It is hoped that the decade-long wrongs of the Matrix can be remedied in bringing this case.”
The Met was also asked to comment on the legal action, as well as its progress against the ICO’s enforcement notice, but Computer Weekly had received no response by the time of publication.
The Matrix was established in the wake of the 2011 London riots, which then-prime minister David Cameron and other senior government figures claimed at the time were orchestrated by gangs.
Although no subsequent reviews – including those by the MPS itself or the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel set up by Cameron – were ever able to confirm any of these assertions, the Matrix became operational in early 2012.