Project Alpha is a police project targeting serous gang violence inspired by social media. The rationale is that disrupting online activity will also disrupt gang violence – led by National Police Chief Council. The project involves looking at what young people are posting, including music videos like drill music videos, which has been perceived as a signifier of violence and gang culture.
What we know
- The Met says it scoured the scheme for signs of racial bias in an equalities impact assessment and found none.
- Project Alpha started in June 2019 and is supported by the Home Office, which has provided almost £5m.
- There is a data protection impact assessment and comprises questions examining compliance with data protection laws and principles, and answers from those running the scheme.
- It was first obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request from the investigative organisation Point Source.
- The document says males aged 15 to 21 will be targeted and promises not to share information about young people without a “compelling” reason.
- To the question in the DPIA, “will there be systematic monitoring or profiling on a large scale, or in a public place?”, the response is “yes” but the rest of the answer is mostly blanked out.
- To the question, “will the project carry out profiling on a large scale?”, the box for “yes” was ticked by the Met, elaborating that although DPA 2018 doesn’t define “large scale, extensive data will be used to identify someone for operational purposes(s) or review.”
- “Yes” was also indicated for whether the project will “process children’s personal data for profiling or automated decision making … or for marketing purposes …” It elaborated: “The project is focused on reducing serious youth violence and many of those involving directly or indirectly are under the age of 18.” A full name and gang affiliation is to be recorded, it says.
- The Met explained to the Guardian, however, that “The inclusion of the demographic 15-21 year[s] old was an error. As we do not ‘profile on a large scale’ we cannot provide any demographic of individuals who are involved in uploading harmful content online. We do not seek to identify personal information about those posting the videos and as such we hold limited personal data (predominantly just the videos themselves).”
- It indicates “combining, comparing” and that it uses new technologies or the “novel use of existing technologies”.
- They do not tell young people they may be of interest under Project Alpha as they claim it could impact on their behaviour and result in more offending, according to a Met’s response to the Guardian.
- Note the DPIA states the following will occur:
- Evaluation or scoring.
- Automated decision-making with significant effects.
- Systematic monitoring.
- Processing of sensitive data or data of a highly personal nature.
- Processing on a large scale.
- The DPIA indicated data matching and sharing “multi-agency level.”
Concern arises because of previous clumsy police approaches to gang culture, such as the Gangs Matrix, which was found to have broken data laws. The ICO has previously issued notices on the Gangs Matrix, in 2018, which the Met says it’s complying with. That as well was racially discriminatory, policed young Black men for the music they listen to or their behaviour on social media – looking for so-called gang signs, which demonises people for belonging to a subculture.
According to Met’s own figures, a disproportionate number of people on the matrix are Black.
There were possible breaches of RIPA due to resulting covert techniques after creating friend profiles on social media platforms and also data sharing practices with non law enforcement agencies. It had negative impacts as the stigma of being associated with a ‘gang’ can follow individuals through their interactions with services such as job centres, housing associations and schools and may result in negative outcomes.
It has also been criticised for not distinguishing victims and persons of concern and for incorrectly holding hundreds on the database.
A recent court verdict in Manchester of ten young men under a conspiracy argument also highlights how a wider group of people were found guilty due to words and content, using telegram messages, social media, music lyrics and youtube videos etc as evidence that they were conspiring to murder to avenge the killing of their so-called leader when, as argued by Kids of Colour, they were acting out their grief.
The young men were repeatedly being referred to as a “gang” yet they referred to themselves as a music group, a deduction that has racist connotations argued KoC’s Roxy Legane.
In particular, Joint Enterprise laws, also known ‘guilty by association, lends itself to worrying interpretation in the same vein if such content can be deemed as criminal evidence.
Social Media Hub
The Social Media Hub is a London Assembly project that supports Project Alpha. The Home Office’s Serious Violence Strategy Budget provides £1.38 millionto the London Assembly/MOPAC and the London Assembly has sought £1.48 million in total for the social media hub.
The social media hub project involves making referrals to social media to take down illegal and harmful content. In a London of Assembly business case 2020/21, a “social media hub”’s core aims were to:
- Deliver a strategy and capabilities to tackle the growing issue of threat, risk and harm generated by gangs through their use of social media platforms that perpetuates serious youth violence and facilitates organised crime.
- Develop methodology and best practice in partnership with other Police Forces, agencies and the third sector to enhance the online response of law enforcement. Advancing skills, knowledge and the use of technology to deliver innovative and effective digital solutions.
- Gauge the scale of the online threat and associated demand on law enforcement. Allow for analysis of online gang networks and how they exploit closed and open groups to operate organised criminality – e.g. recruitment into county lines, Child Criminal and Sexual Exploitation.
- Continued development of a national intelligence network, which would be the UK’s first dedicated open source Intelligence function designed to tackle gang criminality and the associated violence.
- Home Office Facebook page, November 2018, https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=910885795782904
- The Guardian, June 2022, Met police profiling children ‘on a large scale’, documents show https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/jun/03/met-police-project-alpha-profiling-children-documents-show
- Data Protection Impact Assessment, relating to Project Alpha https://www.met.police.uk/SysSiteAssets/foi-media/metropolitan-police/disclosure_2022/february_2022/01.foi.22.022075.pdf
- Metropolitan Police, Gangs Violence Matrix, https://www.met.police.uk/police-forces/metropolitan-police/areas/about-us/about-the-met/gangs-violence-matrix/
- Amnesty International, What is the Gang’s Matrix, https://www.amnesty.org.uk/london-trident-gangs-matrix-metropolitan-police
- The Meteor, May 2022, ‘Justice not jail’ called for in conspiracy case of ten young black men from Manchester
- Kids of Colour Twitter post, May 2022, https://twitter.com/KidsOfColourHQ/status/1522852630988480512
- Mayor of London-London Assembly, November 2021, Project Alpha Social Media Hub, https://www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/mayors-office-policing-and-crime-mopac/governance-and-decision-making/mopac-decisions-0/project-alpha-social-media-hub