More than 150,000 arrest records, including fingerprints and DNA, stored on databases connected to the UK Police National Computer (PNC) were accidentally deleted in a massive software glitch, according to The Times.
The error that occurred a week ago, claim sources, may now allow criminals to dodge apprehension, as biometric evidence from crime scenes will fail to be flagged on the PNC - the system that stores and shares criminal records information across the UK - which is owned and operated by the Home Office.
“This is potentially catastrophic. If the data has been deleted, police won’t be able to connect evidence at crime scenes to the perpetrator,” a source was quoted as saying.
Crucial intelligence about suspects accessed by law enforcement agencies for national, regional and local investigations has also reportedly been scrubbed.
The tech blunder also threw the UK’s visa system into temporary disarray, suspending the processing of applications, which are checked against the PNC, for two days. The Home Office has since concluded that there was no risk to processing.
‘Weeding’ Session Gone Awry
The incident reportedly occurred during a weekly “weeding” session to purge the databases of excess information.
Probing the fallout from the error by Home Office and senior police officials may take several days, with crisis meetings held in the wake of the incident.
Deliberate malicious activity, such as a cyberattack, has been ruled out, claim sources cited by the outlet.
In a bid to assuage concerns, senior police officials were cited as having claimed that deleted records did not relate to convicted criminals.
Information pertaining to criminal suspects who had been arrested and released, or charged and acquitted at trial - which is believed to have disappeared from the databases - is, nevertheless, crucial for apprehending suspected perpetrators.
Stored fingerprints and DNA, when used for cross-checking against material discovered at other crime scenes, often allows the police to bring offenders to justice.
As for the exact number of records that were removed, Home Office officials, who are trying to recover some of the information, estimate the volume affected could be revised up or down as the investigation continues.
The embarrassing tech error comes as Britain has been touting its adequate criminal information records despite losing access to the European database in the wake of Brexit.
After Britain penned a Withdrawal deal with the EU, an estimated 40,000 alerts pertaining to European criminals have already been removed from the PNC.
A spokesman for the National Police Chiefs’ Council responded to the report by saying:
“We are aware of an issue with the PNC and are working closely with government to understand the potential operational impacts.”
A spokeswoman for the Home Office was quoted as confirming that officials had joined forces with the police to “resolve this at pace”.
The incident comes as in late October last year the principal database for the police went down for more than 10 hours last week after an engineer unplugged it.
A senior police source had deplored the unprecedented outage as affecting “every aspect of policing” and impacting the PNC as the “backbone of the country’s policing system”.“Without the PNC, you cannot police; it’s the backbone of intelligence for everyday policing, so when it went down on Wednesday, it caused absolute chaos,” the source was cited by The Times as saying.
Police National Computer
Millions of records containing DNA and fingerprint databases are kept on the PNC, enabling real-time checks on people and vehicles. Accordingly, police can see whether a person is wanted, whether there are specific bail conditions to be met, and what threat a suspect might present.
However, after specific periods of time the databases are reassessed and some information is deleted automatically by software, depending on the nature of the criminal offence, the suspect’s history and other factors.
Details of ‘offences, cautions and convictions’ remain in the database until the person concerned reaches 100.
For those who were convicted, DNA and fingerprints are stored indefinitely, except for first convictions for juveniles. For those arrested and released, or acquitted at trial, fingerprint and DNA records are often kept for a period of three years.