21 March 2016 – Security services have quietly acquired the details of every single person in the UK with access to firearms and put them on a database with known terrorists, it has emerged.
Hidden away in the middle of the government’s draft Investigatory Powers Bill, a snooper’s charter designed to legalise mass surveillance of innocent law-abiding British residents, was a startling admission dressed up as a case study:
BPD Case Study: Preventing Access to Firearms
The terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008 and the more recent shootings in Copenhagen and Paris in 2015, highlight the risk posed from terrorists gaining access to firearms. To help manage the risk of UK based subjects of interest accessing firearms, the intelligence agencies match data about individuals assessed to have access to firearms with records of known terrorists. To achieve this, the security and intelligence agencies acquired the details of all these individuals, even though the majority will not be involved in terrorism and therefore will not be of direct intelligence interest. This allowed the matching to be undertaken at scale and pace, and more comprehensively than individual requests could ever achieve. Completing such activities enabled the intelligence agencies to manage the associated risks to the public.
This can be found on page 34 of the draft bill, which is available via the government website (PDF, 299 pages).
All new members of Home Office approved rifle clubs have their personal details – name, address, telephone number, and so on – transmitted to the police by the club. This data transmission is a condition of clubs securing Home Office approval, which is a legal status that allows non-firearm certificate holders to handle firearms and shoot at club events.
Once that information is received by the police, it is run through the same databases used to vet firearm and shotgun certificate holders: the Police National Computer, local force intelligence databases (such as STORM), the Police National Database (to look up the history of properties associated with that person), and Special Branch’s records.
Police forces typically make no response to applicants or clubs unless a person’s history returns a hit. Although the Home Office’s intent with this system was to allow rifle clubs to work together with police in managing risks associated with new members, in the one case where UK Shooting News’ author was involved as a club secretary, all the Metropolitan Police would say is “we would not grant this person an FAC” despite repeated questioning. It turned out that the prospective member in question had accepted a caution for ABH when he was 18, having been caught up in a mass pub brawl.
There has been no indication until now that these records were ever stored beyond their first use, much less handed over wholesale to the security services for surveillance and bulk processing purposes. Nowhere in the literature given to FAC/SGC holders or rifle clubs is there any indication that data handed over will be used for big data analytics projects, merely the blanket get-out-of-jail-free “policing purposes” disclaimer which every applicant must agree to. There is no oversight of what happens to this personal data once it is in the police’s hands.
As well as rifle club members, FAC, SGC and RFD holders and their servants, the database is likely to include armed forces personnel and reservists, police employees, volunteer cadet instructors, Border Force employees, security services employees, large civilian ships’ crews (signalling equipment is typically licensed as firearms), MoD contractors, some private security firms’ employees, and probably a multitude of other categories as well.
A conservative estimate of the number of people these categories cover suggests the numbers run into the millions – meaning that slightly more than 1 in 65 of the entire UK population is now on a state database alongside known terrorists. Moreover, the existence of a single database with personal details of people who can lay their hands on legal firearms is an instant target for hackers working in concert with organised crime, terrorists or even foreign state actors. The very fact that it exists makes every member of the licensed firearms community less safe and more exposed to criminals and terrorists.
It only takes one transposed row in a database, one partly-corrupted file, or one uninterested data entry clerk making a typing error, to destroy an innocent life forever. This is too much power concentrated in one place and it needs to be destroyed.
Featured image: The GB Palma Rifle Team, 2015. Police, the Home Office and MI5 evidently believe these competitive sportsmen and women are a potential terror threat.