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False accusations down to 'data blunders' by police

Innocent people have been wrongly associated to paedophile investigations because of clumsy attempts to access communications data, a watchdog has revealed.

Errors in tracing information about internet activity by law enforcement agencies and technology firms led to one individual being arrested, despite being completely unconnected to a probe, the Interception of Communications Commissioner (IOCCO) said. It also led to five police searches at properties linked to people who had nothing to do with child abuse investigations, while three other cases against suspects had to be dropped.

IOCCO Sir Anthony May said such mistakes can have a devastating impact on those affected. It was also revealed that a revised code introduced in March requiring judges to sign off requests to access journalists' data had already been breached by two police forces. The half-yearly report logged 17 serious errors by public authorities or communications service providers in 2014.

Ten were related to requests for internet data, including eight which related to investigations into sexual exploitation of children or instances where serious concerns were raised about a child’s welfare. Overall, nine were caused by human error, with the remainder attributed to technical faults.

In one case, a public authority sought to trace the user of an email account used to groom a young girl as part of an investigation into child sexual exploitation, but missed out an underscore on the address. It led to a police warrant being executed at the premises of an individual unconnected with the investigation.

A technical error by a CSP saw three warrants executed at premises relating to individuals who were unconnected with police investigations into child sexual exploitation, with one of them also being arrested. A systems glitch also saw a warrant wrongly executed at a property relating to people who were not linked in any way to an investigation into the uploading of indecent images of children.

The mistakes were mainly linked to requests by public authorities to ‘resolve’ IP addresses – numerical labels assigned to devices on the internet. Sir Anthony stressed that the most serious examples should be seen in the context of a total of 998 errors from more than half a million notices and authorisations.

He said: “Regrettably, when errors occur in relation to the resolution of IP addresses, the consequences are particularly acute.

“Any police action taken erroneously in such cases, such as the search of an individual's house who is unconnected with the investigation, or a delayed welfare check on an individual whose life is believed to be at risk, can have a devastating impact on the individuals concerned.”

Sir Anthony declined to name the organisations responsible for the errors.

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