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The UK’s “National Fraud Initiative” would give police power to match public and private sector data

A new step towards a surveillance state.

Civil liberties defenders are campaigning to prevent the police in that country from gaining more powers and wider access to personal data via the changes to the National Fraud Initiative (NFI).

This is the less publicly visible of the two ways UK’s authorities are exploring to bolster law enforcement’s access to data, noting that the more prominent attempt is taking place through the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill 2021.

What started as an anti-fraud program matching public and private sector data would now include virtually any criminal activity without any mention of safeguards or restrictions regarding police access.

NFI’s current records amount to 300 million and this is sensitive data pertaining to public sector payroll, housing benefit, electoral register, and right to buy, among other things.

This is why it is important to draw the authorities’ attention to what are seen as the proposal’s serious drawbacks, such as the lack of restrictions on police access to NFI records and of external oversight and safeguards.

Furthermore, privacy groups want the government to explain how NFI retains sensitive data in order to protect digital privacy and produce a data protection impact assessment before embarking on any data matching.

The issue’s significance in terms of privacy and data security is such that it needs to be given proper time for public review.

In announcing the consultation, the Cabinet Office, which is managing the NFI, said that it plans to widen its data matching powers and update a code guiding this practice. The government said the goal is to improve efficiency and use of data in combating crime, specifying that the program’s powers would be expanded to prevention and detection of crime other than NFI’s original purpose to fight fraud.

With the help of an “updated” NFI, the government also hopes to make it easier to arrest and prosecute offenders.

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