The Wrong Internet Address: Police Data Errors and Arrests

In the modern world, the police are frequently required to investigate “internet crime”, such as Social Media hacking or the online sexual exploitation of children.

With such cases, a Force Communications Data Investigator will be appointed to identify the offender from the Internet Protocol  (IP) number or address used at the time of the offence.

The IP address is a unique number allocated by a service provider, for example Sky or BT, when a customer connects to the internet.  Each service provider is allocated a range of numbers which in turn it then allocates to its customers at the commencement of their internet use.  This number is generally returned to the service provider at the conclusion of the customer’s internet use and may be re-allocated to the next customer as and when they log on to the internet.

So, when investigating a Facebook hack, for example, the Investigator will request details of all IP addresses which logged into the individual’s Facebook account between set times on a set date.  From the identified IP address, it is then possible to trace a physical address where the IP address was allocated at the relevant time.

The investigation of IP addresses, though seemingly a ‘straightforward’ matter of computer data retrieval, can easily go astray due to human error such as;

·        the submission by an Investigating Officer of an incorrect communications address; for example when s/he has taken incorrect details from a victim or witness;

·        the Investigating Officer or Data Investigator inaccurately  transposing a communications address; a single misplaced digit can lead to the wrong person being identified;

·        the misinterpretation of data by Data Investigators; IP addresses are dynamic and can appear in different date formats and time zones. Time conversion of IP activity from international time zones to GMT or BST creates lots of room for error.

The potential impact of errors on the rights of individuals can be grave, as a case that I recently concluded shows;

One morning in May 2015, Edna Morris was home alone when 2 Police Officers attended.  At the time, she was 56 years old. She was registered disabled and had a history of both physical and mental health conditions, having experienced a number of very traumatic events in her life, including the suicides of two of her brothers within a week of each other.  She lived with her friend and carer, Chris Grant, and was a person of entirely good character, never having had any adverse interactions with the Police before.

Edna invited the officers in.  She was told that she was under arrest for downloading and distributing indecent images of children.  Edna was shocked.  She felt sick and began to panic.

The Officers advised that they had a Warrant and began to search the premises.  The Officers seized her laptop and phone and then transported Edna to the Police Station.

Edna very understandably felt distressed and humiliated, particularly because other people in the area of the custody desk overheard why she had been arrested.  To be involved in the sexual exploitation of children is one of the most ghastly crimes of which a person can be accused. Edna was searched and her property removed.  Her fingerprints, DNA and photograph were then taken and she was escorted to a cell.

Meantime, the Officers contacted Mr Grant and asked that he immediately attend the Police Station.  Chris drove to the Police Station, where he too was arrested on suspicion of possession and supply of indecent images of children.

Mr Grant was similarly processed and both he and Edna were then interviewed, albeit separately.

Just after lunchtime, both Edna and Chris were released on bail with conditions to reside at their home address and to have no unsupervised contact with any child under the age of 16. This was particularly devastating to Edna as she had many young nephews and nieces to whom she was close, and who she feared she might never see again because of these false accusations against her.

Edna and Chris met up outside the station and Chris drove Edna home.  Edna decided that when Chris went to bed that night she would take an overdose of tablets to end her life; her whole world seemed to be collapsing in the face of these sickening accusations. She decided to ‘end it all’ and wrote a farewell letter to her nephews and nieces.

Meanwhile, during the course of the afternoon, one of the arresting officers had received an email from the National Crime Agency that read;

“there has been an error in applying for communications data around the upload IP address.

The time reported is Monday 24th November 2014 at 10:10.39 – 0500 which was converted, in error, to 05:10:39 UTC.

The subscriber results which have today been actioned relate to an innocent party and not the suspect in this case.

I apologise for this error and the inconvenience it has caused.”

Both Edna and Chris were contacted and informed that there had been a mistake and that no further action would be taken against them. Fortunately, this happened during the course of the same day. Had the error not been discovered by the Police until the following day, it might have been too late for Edna, given her suicidal intentions; tragedy was narrowly avoided.

Despite the relief which they felt at this vindication of their innocence, both Edna and Chris understandably suffered significant psychological trauma by reason of the incident, as well as loss of liberty and the indignity of their home being searched and possessions seized.

As regards psychological injury, both Edna and Chris complained of significant emotional distress, sleep disturbance, impaired concentration and anxiety.

I am delighted to report that after a lengthy legal battle involving the National Crime Agency and the Police, both claims settled with Chris recovering £17,500 and Edna recovering £25,000.

In March this year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson commended to Parliament the latest report of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner which covered the year 2018.  Overall he advised, the report demonstrated “that the security and intelligence agencies, law enforcement agencies and other relevant public authorities show extremely high levels of operational competence combined with respect for the law”.

What Prime Minister Johnson did not highlight from the report were the wrongful arrests of four completely innocent people who were accused of offences such as sexualised contact with children online and sharing indecent images of children, nor the cases of several other people whose homes were searched and IT equipment seized for similar reasons. The report made clear that all those wrongfully accused had suffered as a result of Police errors when reviewing relevant Communication Data, just as with Edna and Chris.

After the dust had settled, Edna wrote to the Police seeking compensation. After a lengthy period of investigation, the Police denied any liability on their part and suggested that Edna take the matter up with the National Crime Agency, who had supplied the incorrect data.  Edna felt very disheartened and that there would be no accountability for the errors that had led to her arrest; she struggled to find a solicitor interested in taking on her case. She felt that doors were being shut in her face.

Many months later, Edna happened to be watching a TV programme in which I was interviewed as a specialist in Police Misconduct claims.  She made contact and asked if I could help in her quest for justice. 

I brought a claim on behalf of both her and Chris against the Police and the National Crime Agency for Breach of Data Protection Act 1998, Misuse of Private Information, Trespass to Land and Goods, False Imprisonment and Assault and Battery.

My clients welcomed the compensation that was ultimately awarded, but financial recompense only goes so far.  Edna and Chris have to live with the consequences of what happened to them. In reality, there is no amount of money that can expunge the horrible memory of the hours they spent under accusation of child sexual exploitation.

In a world where more and more crimes are going to be committed and investigated online, it is absolutely essential that rigorous training and practices are enforced to ensure that errors do not occur at the human end of the ‘data chain’ leading to catastrophic impacts on the lives of innocent people such as Edna and Chris.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.