Revealed: data from UK anti-radicalisation scheme Prevent being shared with ports and airports | Prevent strategy

Details of thousands of individuals referred to the government’s controversial anti-radicalisation Prevent programme are being shared far more widely than was previously known, with data secretly sent to airports, ports and immigration services, as well as officials at the Home Office and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

Critics believe the widespread sharing of data could be unlawful, with sensitive personal details of those referred to Prevent being moved between databases without the knowledge or consent of the individuals concerned.

A Metropolitan police document seen by the Observer also confirms that the sharing of details relating to Prevent across the police extends much wider than just counter-terrorism units, with local officers among those able to access such details.

The document, entitled “Prevent case management guidance”, also raises the prospect of details being shared with the ports authority watchlist, prompting fears that individuals are more likely to be searched at airports or targeted with counter-terrorism powers, which allow police to stop people without the need for “reasonable suspicion”.

In the case of foreign nationals, the document reveals that the FCDO and immigration services may be notified to determine if the individual in question has “any convictions abroad or whether other intelligence about activities outside the UK is held”.

In addition, the Acro Criminal Records Office – the body that manages criminal records in the UK – may also be notified, even though Prevent engages with individuals who have yet to engage in criminal behaviour.

Counter-terror police said that they took “great care in how we share data” and did so to protect vulnerable children and adults.

The stated aim of Prevent, which is a voluntary programme, is to divert people from terrorism before they offend. Most people do not even know that they have been referred, with about 95% of cases resulting in no further action.

In 2019, it was revealed that counter-terrorism police across the UK had been running a secret database – the National Police Prevent Case Management database – containing details of people referred to Prevent.

The new document, revealed in a freedom of information response to digital rights campaigners the Open Rights Group (ORG), shows Prevent data is shared to significantly more police databases, including the Police National Computer – which shares criminal records across the UK – along with specialised counter-terrorism and local intelligence systems, as well as the National Crime Agency, which fights serious crime.

The extent of the data sharing was disclosed accidentally, as the workings of Prevent are normally shrouded in secrecy because of national security concerns. Although the Met document was heavily redacted, when researchers copied and pasted the file, the redactions disappeared. The ORG then contacted the force, warning that it intended to make the document public and giving the Met an opportunity to raise any concerns, but the force opted not to respond.

Sophia Akram of the ORG said: “The disclosure of the guidance shows the extent of data-sharing and the harms that could result from this.

“We hope this information will help the thousands of affected people to exercise their data protection rights and get their data removed from the myriad of government databases where it is held.”

The disclosed guidance, dated August 2020 and marked “official-sensitive”, also reveals that even when police decide that the case merits “no further action”, the data is still used. Additionally, it shows that counter-terrorism police may undertake disruptive activity, including investigating and prosecuting ASB – antisocial behaviour – to try to thwart someone’s supposed path to extremism.

Akram added that such personal data can be left on systems for 100 years and that, given the extent of the data sharing and volume of Prevent referrals that are not progressed, this was “unfair and likely unlawful”.

Of particular concern is the impact that Prevent referrals have on young people’s educational opportunities, because the strategy gives public bodies such as schools and the police a legal duty to identify individuals who may turn to extremism.

The Latest referral figures show that 6,817 people were referred to Prevent between April 2022 and March 2023. Of these, 2,684 were referred by educational institutions. By age, 2,203 referrals were of young people aged 15 to 20, and 2,119 were of children aged 14 and under.

Government guidance for referring individuals judged susceptible to radicalisation into terrorism includes those displaying “any sympathetic interest in hate crimes, extremism or terrorism – including any extremist ideology, group or cause, support for ‘school shooters’ or public massacres, or murders of public figures”. In the wake of the crisis in Israel and Gaza, ministers wrote to schools and universities to remind them of their duties under Prevent, prompting concerns there would be a spike of referrals.

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“We now know that these harms could continue for the rest of a referred child’s life, even if their case is marked as ‘no further action’,” said Akram.

One case examined by the ORG involved a 16-year-old whose place at a sixth-form college was withdrawn because of a Prevent referral made two years previously. The teenager thought he was going to enrol at the college but was instead questioned about his religious views and opinions on jihad, without his parents or a safeguarding officer present.

Another case involved a six-year-old whose personal data was found in a database run by counter-terrorism police after his father refused to engage with Prevent.

Layla Aitlhadj, director and senior caseworker at Prevent Watch, an organisation that monitors the programme, said: “The fact that children as young as four who have been referred to Prevent erroneously still have their data shared in such an intrusive manner should send shockwaves across the human rights, and particularly children’s rights, organisations.

“Prevent Watch clients have informed us of stops at the borders following Prevent referrals but we never had any evidence to suggest that the incidents were connected. These revelations get us one step closer to exposing just how abusive the data processing aspect of Prevent is.”

Aitlhadj added: “The FoI further exposes the myth that Prevent is not a form of criminalisation because even the individuals flagged as ‘no further action’ can have their data on criminal databases and [be] flagged on watchlists. The natural tenets do not apply with Prevent where you can exonerate yourself from a charge or suspicion, because of its pre-crime nature.”

A spokesman for counter-terrorism policing said: “We take great care in how we share our data, doing so on a case-by-case basis where the law permits, and only with the agencies we believe necessary to protect the vulnerable children and adults who are referred to us.

“If someone is worried because a loved one may be considering travelling overseas to join a terror group, or to a conflict zone, then in those specific cases we may share information with ports and borders agencies to try and stop that person from putting themselves in danger.”

They added: “Prevent has always been a multi-agency programme designed to protect people from harm, and all this document does is demonstrate how we use different agencies to keep people safe.”