RSPCA has access to confidential police data and no one is checking what it does with it

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order

RSPCA logoUK police routinely pass on personal information they hold, including central criminal records and huge swathes of material held by local forces, to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) - a non-government body with no official requirement to reveal who it holds data about, what data it holds, how it stores it or for how long.

According to an in-depth investigation by the Register, using data culled from several requests made under freedom of information regulations, the RSPCA not only has regular access to central records held on the "Police National Computer" (PNC), but also maintains close links with many local forces, supported by official information sharing agreements.

The documents uncovered by the Register and other investigators include a service level agreement (SLA) between the RSPCA and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), which maintains the central database of criminal records in the UK.

Access is granted to all manner of data held on the PNC database, as well as rights to create new records to record information on new prosecutions. Although ACPO states the records should only be requested "at the stage that a prosecution is brought", the SLA seems to contain no mention of such a requirement.

ACPO's statement also implies at the outset that the RSPCA only has access to the PNC to create new prosecution records, although further down in the small print it does admit that all sorts of data may then be handed over in return.

This sort of access is usually restricted to the police themselves and a select group of "Non-Police Prosecuting Agencies", which the RSPCA is apparently counted as one of.

The rest of the group, though, are all government agencies, such as the Food Standards Agency, the Environment Agency, the Gambling Commission and others who may need to bring prosecutions or check into the background of people for security purposes.

Dog, cat and turtle. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.In all these cases, information is required to be traceable and fully audited to ensure it is being properly handled and not kept beyond its period of usefulness (officially 6 years). Requirements for such auditing are included in the regulations covering access to the police database, but they do not extend to the RSPCA, as an external charitable body.

They are also exempted from revealing what data they hold under the usual freedom of information laws, if it relates to catching a criminal or a possible prosecution - which, presumably, any data gathered from police sources would be expected to.

The fees charged to access these records are redacted from the disclosed document, but other statements from the ACPO suggest a fee of £35 applies for the "Update service" required to start a prosecution, with presumably additional fees for further lookups. The agreement includes an estimate of 1450 data applications in the current year.

Aside from the central PNC access, more recently disclosed records have revealed the information sharing agreements held between the RSPCA and several local police forces.

This data is even more comprehensive, including pretty much anything a police force might be expected to know about a person, whether related to animals or not - although in some cases a nod is made to the animal-specific nature of the RSPCA's remit, this is usually couched in terms which allow for ample flexibility.

Information about offences not directly related to animal or wildlife crime, but which might be an indicator of someone exhibiting a willingness and capacity to inflict harm on animals (or people), or otherwise evidencing their disregard for the welfare of animals in general

The list goes on and on, and includes vehicle registration data and firearms license data, both of which categories include a wide range of additional personal information which one would not expect to find in a standard police report.

The RSPCA is definitively not a government body and is not subject to the checks and balances designed to protect police data.

There's no way national or local police forces should be giving it any information whatsoever on the people they investigate, question, hear about or feel like monitoring.

It's bad enough that so much sensitive information on so many people has to be held by the police themselves, but at least there is some justification for them holding it, and there are detailed rules on how the data is managed and who can get their hands on it, including transparency regulations.

The RSPCA can bypass these rules through its status as a charity and has access to all the data it wants. The sharing needs to be stopped right now.


Image of animals courtesy of Shutterstock.

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12 Responses to RSPCA has access to confidential police data and no one is checking what it does with it

  1. Doasyouwouldbedoneby · 437 days ago

    One "middle way" here would be that if X shares data with Y, then the strictest of the regulations applying to either of X or Y is deemed to apply to both X and Y. So if there are some things that the RSPCA has to do by law with/about the data it receives, from which the police are exempt, then those things "reflect back" onto the police. Then the police won't share data unless thay are prepared to accept the boosted standards that they'd be held to.

    If there are things the police have to do but the RSPCA usually doesn't (e.g. the FoI stuff), then those things "flow forth" onto the RSPCA. So they can't receive data unless they are prepared to accept the boosted standards.

  2. Ben · 437 days ago

    Sounds like George Orwell's novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four" took a few extra years to become fact rather than fiction.

  3. Paul Adams · 437 days ago

    There are two bodies in the UK, as far as I know, that have extraordinary powers, and it is almost impossible to rescind them.
    The bodies are The National Trust (NT) and the RSPCA.
    The NT was set up by an act of parliament in such a way that the act cannot be overturned by any succeeding government, and it is, in effect, ultra vires (beyond the law).
    The RSPCA was given prosecuting powers which it can (and does) use to prosecute people that it THINKS may do harm to animals - without having their evidence tested at all.

    The police cannot bring a prosecution, only present the evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The CPS then judge the case and make a decision regarding taking it to court.
    Both of the above bodies should have their wings clipped, but the power to do it does not lie inside the UK.
    I wonder if the UN should get involved.....

    • Juan · 437 days ago

      I’m no expert on UK law, but ever since 1688, parliamentary sovereignty has been supreme, resulting in a status quo that believes, "No Act of Parliament can be unconstitutional, for the law of the land knows not the word or the idea.”*
      * Chrimes, S B (1967). English Constitutional History. London: Oxford University Press. p. 42.

      In the U.S., the Constitution is supposed to be the supreme law of the land, but that doesn’t stop the Congress from passing laws that are unconstitutional, or from creating legislation that gives powers to the Executive branch that are blatantly unconstitutional.

      The U.N. provides no recourse whatsoever. Even if the U.N. had the power to overrule the sovereignty of any nation (it doesn’t), that would just transfer the tyranny to a superstate. The problem is the acceptability of state tyranny itself, not who holds that power.

      That’s why nothing changes, except when it gets worse. Everyone believes in the myth that we just don’t have the right people in power. The fact that power corrupts even the best people is not taken seriously.

      Juan

  4. SamK · 437 days ago

    A point not brought out here is that almost anyone, if they are so minded, can infiltrate the RSPCA and thus get access to this information

  5. Andrew · 437 days ago

    AS the RSPCA are not a legal body the police are in grave error for supplying this information, when are these errors that government allows to happen going to end. Are we really going towards 1984? what a sad world we live in.

  6. Animal abuse is a crime and hardly anybody treats it as serious. Everybody knows animal abuse is often a warning indicator to identify developing psychopaths. Ultimately the article says it doesn't know what data is kept, or anything about it. Maybe this should be more transparent a process but the idea that somebody is doing something with law enforcement to do whatever to animal abusers makes me very happy and whatever they are doing to this end probably isn't enough.

    • Steve · 436 days ago

      I'm with you on the animal abuse issue, but you're missing a vital point. Power is being given to an entity which should not have it under existing circumstances. Either the RSPCA needs to be made a governmental authority, subject to the same conditions as other such agencies, or they need to find other ways to obtain their information. You are assuming - correctly, in most instances, I'm sure - that they are always "the good guys". But power can and will be abused, so it must be tightly controlled. Your perspective seems to support vigilantism... a dangerous proposition.

      • Rob Dunlop · 436 days ago

        @Steve

        'Your perspective seems to support vigilantism'

        I don't feel Jim's view does this at all. Unfortunately i feel it's knee-jerk sensationalism that entices normally sound and rational people to suddenly see vigilantes and secret underworld organisations everywhere, all of whom are apparently hell-bent to 'take you down' and picture you in your boxer shorts.

        I do agree with you, however, that a society of vigilantes would be no more than Anarchy and be the final death-nail to any ideas of Community or Tolerance across your town/city/state/country/continent/world .... society would regress to nothing more than fractured tribes and warlords living in a state of lynch-mobs and lawlessness.

        However, back to the point (!), let's see the evidence that the RSPCA is misusing any information it has .... maybe they even have those WMDs we couldn't find !!

        • Paul Adams · 435 days ago

          I do like the new phrase "death-nail", it is almost better than the original "death-nell"
          ;-/

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About the author

John Hawes is Chief of Operations at Virus Bulletin, running independent anti-malware testing there since 2006. With over a decade of experience testing security products, John was elected to the board of directors of the Anti-Malware Testing Standards Organisation (AMTSO) in 2011.