Met police did not consult us on children’s data project, say youth violence experts

Youth violence experts have said they had no involvement with a police scheme that collects children’s personal data, despite the Met claiming to have consulted them.

Project Alpha, involving more than 30 staff and launched in 2019 with Home Office funding, scours social media sites looking at drill music videos and other content. It has prompted concerns about racial profiling and potential privacy violations.

The Met has claimed that it approached a range of organisations as part of a public stakeholder consultation before the scheme launched.

In response to a freedom of information request submitted by the investigative journalism organisation Point Source, the police force said: “We can confirm that the MPS reached out to the following organisations to seek their views: St Giles Trust, Ben Kinsella Trust, Redthread, Catch-22, Safer London … There was very limited engagement from the organisations and therefore we did not receive any relevant observations and/or concerns.”

When approached by the Guardian, three of the organisations listed said they had never been formally asked to participate in a consultation for the project, raising concerns about the rigour of the Met’s consultation process.

Patrick Green, CEO of the anti-knife crime charity Ben Kinsella Trust, said: “Although we met with officers from Project Alpha, we were never formally asked to participate in a stakeholder consultation before the project was launched.”

Josie Cochrane from the not-for-profit community organisation Catch-22 said her organisation had no knowledge of the Project Alpha scheme and, as far as she was aware, the organisation had never been asked to be part of a consultation. She said: “While we’re not aware of the specifics of a stakeholder consultation, we believe it is appropriate for law enforcement to consider social media, but applying the appropriate legal safeguards and in a proportionate manner.”

A spokesperson for Redthread said: “We are not aware of any stakeholder consultation on Project Alpha.”

The latest statements about the consultation process have stoked concerns that the creation of Project Alpha lacked proper oversight. The Met declined to provide the Guardian with minutes of meetings, emails, or evidence of phone calls that formed part of the consultation process.

The police force has already said it made significant errors when it was writing a data protection impact assessment document for the project. In a statement, it said that stating males aged 15 to 21 would be a focus of the project “was an error”.

It also said that writing in the impact assessment document that it would “carry out profiling on a large scale” was a mistake and that it was not profiling children on a large scale.

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The Met is overseen by the mayor’s office for policing and crime (Mopac), which approved Project Alpha.

A Mopac spokesperson said the mayor, Sadiq Khan, and his officials would be on the alert for rights breaches caused by Project Alpha.

The spokesperson said: “We know that criminals are using social media to incite violence, sell illegal drugs and criminally and sexually exploit vulnerable young people across London – and this cannot go unchallenged.

“The Home Office has funded the Project Alpha initiative in response to this threat and the mayor is working closely with the Met police to tackle online content which seeks to glorify and incite violent crime.

“Sadiq will continue to hold the Met to account to ensure that all police powers are used proportionately and that lessons have been learned in all its work following the review of the gangs violence matrix.”