Technical Error 'Saw 150,000 U.K. Police Records Wiped' From Databases

Police have been asked to assess if there is a threat to public safety after it was revealed that thousands of police records were deleted in error, including data on fingerprints, DNA, and arrest histories.

The error, first reported in the Times, saw 150,000 files lost, with fears it could mean offenders go free. A coding error is thought to have caused the earmarking of the files for deletion.

The U.K. Home Office said the lost entries related to people who were arrested and then released without further action and no records of criminal or dangerous people had been deleted. Home secretary Priti Patel is now under pressure to explain the mistake, which the opposition Labour party said "presents huge dangers" for public safety.

The government minister for policing, Kit Malthouse, issued a statement admitting "a number of records" were deleted in error during a "standard housekeeping process" on the Police National Computer (PNC). The PNC stores and shares criminal record information and can be accessed by any police force or law enforcement agency across the U.K. to support investigations.

Malthouse said: "A fast time review has identified the problem and corrected the process so it cannot happen again. The Home Office, NPCC (National Police Chiefs Council) and other law enforcement partners are working at pace to recover the data. While the loss relates to individuals who were arrested and then released with no further action, I have asked officials and the police to confirm their initial assessment that there is no threat to public safety."

Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said Patel, who is yet to issue a statement on the error, should take responsibility for it and be clear about the impact it has had. "She must urgently make a statement about what has gone wrong, the extent of the issue, and what action is being taken to reassure the public," he said. "This is an extraordinarily serious security breach that presents huge dangers for public safety."

The impact of the lost files is significant because some offenders released with no further action are ultimately charged and convicted because their fingerprints and DNA have been kept on file and accessed via the PNC and cross-checked against material found at other crime scenes. Stuart Hyde, the former chief constable of Cumbria police force, said the loss represents a "very large proportion" of the 650,000 people arrested each year.

"In terms of the risk this creates, clearly some of those people may be involved in subsequent offending and could only be identified through either fingerprints and DNA when they were subsequently brought to light," he told BBC Radio 4's Today program. "That may be only a few people, a handful, but nonetheless it still represents a risk."

Police officers form a line in Wales
The government has said that none of the deleted records were of dangerous criminals Matthew Horwood/Getty

A spokesman for the NPCC said: "We are aware of an issue with the PNC and are working closely with the government to understand the potential operational impacts." Home Office officials are trying to recover some of the information that was lost, a spokesman said.

Details of all offenses, cautions and convictions stay on the PCN until the person concerned reaches 100. Biometric data for those who have been convicted, such as DNA and fingerprints, are kept indefinitely, except for first convictions for juveniles. For those arrested and released with no further action, or acquitted at trial, fingerprint and DNA records are often kept for three years though police officers can apply for extensions. For some minor offenses, data is deleted automatically.

The government lost access to a key European database as a result of Brexit, with around 40,000 alerts relating to European criminals thought to have been deleted from the PNC as a result.