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Innocent people grilled by police about paedophilia and murder due to Internet data bungle

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Innocent people have been caught up in paedophile and murder investigations because of blunders in the handling of phone and internet data, a damning report has revealed.

Blameless individuals have been arrested, seen their homes and electronic devices searched and had their children taken into care as a result of serious errors.

The incidents were revealed as a watchdog flagged up the “appalling” consequences of erroneous use of communications data.

Particular concerns were raised over mistakes made when authorities link internet protocol addresses - numerical labels assigned to devices on the web - to physical locations.

In his annual report for 2016, Interception of Communications Commissioner Sir Stanley Burnton said errors in attempts to “resolve” IP addresses are “far more common than is acceptable”.

He warned the impact on some victims of these mistakes has been “appalling” and “enormous”, noting: “People have been arrested for crimes relating to child sexual exploitation. "Their children have been taken into care, and they have had to tell their employers.”

Communications data covers information such as who sent a message or made a phone call, when and where this happened - but not the content. More than 750,000 items of communications data were acquired by public authorities during 2016.

Last year 1,101 communications data errors were reported to the Commissioner's office, with 29 cases classified as serious.

Twenty of these were human error, seven were “system/workflow” errors and in two instances communications data was obtained without the lawful authority.

Innocent people were arrested and/or had their homes searched on seven occasions.

The report reveals how in one instance the incorrect day and month was typed into an IP resolution request during an investigation into the use of blackmail to incite sexual acts by children over social media.

As a result, police searched an address unconnected with their investigation, carried out forensic examination of a large number of devices owned by innocent people and conducted voluntary interviews of four people.

This included two children who were then subject to formal safeguarding processes, including being separated from their parents for a weekend.

Other serious cases reported include:

  • An innocent person was arrested and interviewed in a blackmail investigation after police applied for subscriber information based on a phone number that had been incorrectly recorded within a witness statement.
  • Two innocent individuals were arrested, interviewed and had their electronic devices forensically examined by police investigating child sexual exploitation after an error copying an IP address from one system to another.
  • Police investigating a murder contacted an individual unconnected to the probe after a telephone number was incorrectly recorded in a database.
  • An innocent person was arrested and interviewed as part of an investigation into a paedophile ring after communications data was misinterpreted.

Sir Stanley said that in general the standard of compliance is high, adding: “Errors and more general problems form a very small percentage of the total activity I inspect.”

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