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Sun 5 December 2021

A secretive database using covert methods to monitor social media platforms is recording more and more data on individuals who may or may not be involved in crime

The Met Police has dramatically expanded the scope of its multi-million-pound social media surveillance operations, stoking concerns about privacy violations and online racial profiling.

Between 3 September 2020 and 28 July 2021, the number of categories of data being recorded on the Met’s ‘Operation Alpha’ database more than doubled from 16 to 34, according to statements issued by England’s largest police force in response to a Freedom of Information request by Byline Times.

The secretive database is used by a unit called Project Alpha Team, which uses covert methods to monitor social media platforms. It was created in June 2019 and has been allocated £4.8 million in funding from the Home Office since its inception.

The Met has described the Operation Alpha database as a “working document” that is used to document information gathered from both “private and open” social media accounts. “The main purpose of the project is to take action against online gang-related content to prevent threat, risk and harm, focusing on investigation, disruption and enforcement activity utilising proactive and covert methods,” it states.

The force declined to reveal how many social media profiles have already been tracked on the Operation Alpha database as part of its online surveillance operations, claiming that revealing this information “would provide offenders with information that would assist them to evade police”.

The Met also refused to provide a full list detailing all of the types of information that it is gathering on individuals and storing in the database, saying that this would undermine its efforts to track criminals.

This lack of transparency has alarmed human rights campaigners who are concerned that the Met may be tracking people who are not involved in gang activity and that such information gathering could violate privacy legislation.

“These operations by the police to monitor closed groups and private profiles on social media are a source for concern,” Kevin Blowe, coordinator of the police monitoring group Netpol, told Byline Times.

“The past has clearly shown that schemes like Project Alpha often start tracking individuals that are not involved in crime without proper justification. Increased transparency about these online surveillance operations is needed so that police analysts aren’t given a free reign to surveil innocent people.

“It is highly likely that racial profiling is a key part of Operation Alpha. We already know that it is fundamental to other police activities such as stop and search as well as the use of knife crime prevention orders.”

Last October, official figures for England and Wales showed that black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people.

The Met Police has previously been found guilty of illegally storing information about individuals from ethnic minorities who are not involved in crime.

In November 2018, the UK’s data protection watchdog found that another gang-focused database, the Metropolitan Police’s ‘Gangs Matrix’, had seriously breached data protection laws, potentially causing “damage and distress” to the disproportionate number of black men on it.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) concluded that the database, which was set up in the wake of the 2011 London riots, failed to sufficiently distinguish between victims of gang-related crime and perpetrators, leading to confusion among police officers.

The ICO also revealed that some London boroughs were using additional informal lists of people who had been removed from the Gangs Matrix, meaning that police continued to monitor people that intelligence indicated were not gang members. It found that the force was sharing the information with other bodies – such as local councils, housing associations and education authorities – without providing sufficient guidance on how it should be used.

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Individuals listed on the database could find themselves denied services and as well as suffering other adverse consequences, the ICO said.

The Met has said that the Project Alpha team’s activities include monitoring “drill music” – a rap sub-genre that characteristically includes violent lyrics and is often made by groups of young black men living in Britain’s most deprived urban areas. This has been controversial, with some human rights groups saying that it unfairly targets individuals from deprived communities.

“Often these social media intelligence operations, sometimes referred to as ‘socmint’, use software that looks for keywords and hashtags used on profile to trigger warnings that someone might be involved in crime,” Kevin Blowe told Byline Times. “The idea that there are automatic connections between certain hashtags or types of music and criminal activities is a dangerous principle. If someone listens to drill music it shouldn’t make them automatically a threat in the eyes of the law.”

The Met Police did not respond to requests for comment on concerns about racial profiling and potential privacy violations related to Operation Alpha.

It said: “Project Alpha officers are young, street-wise and have previous experience of working in gang units across the capital; they have extensive insight into gangs, understand the slang and colloquial language used and can spot emerging threats.”

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