Prevent: Shawcross Review fails to address data harms and rights

On 8 February, the long awaited report – the Independent Review of Prevent – conducted by the commissioner for public appointments William Shawcross, was published after much scepticism, delay and controversy, even from within the cabinet.

Prior to its publication, Open Rights Group joined a range of civil society groups in boycotting the review and contributed to an alternative – the People’s Review of Prevent – and its chapter on data protection, preceding and preempting the contents of the official report. 

That’s because even before the process began, Shawcross’s track record of Islamophobic comments during his tenure as director of the right wing think tank the Henry Jackson Society, provided little faith that the review would be free from bias and fair to a community that has previously been most targeted by the policy.

‘Preventing’ radicalisation

The Prevent Duty, born in the wake of 9/11 as part of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, places a duty on public authorities to identify and report radical behaviour in a bid to prevent terrorism before it happens. It had typically profiled Muslims in the face of rising so-called Islamist terrorism. 

As the strategy has evolved, other forms of extremism have been captured by the duty’s remit, including that of the far-right. In recent statistics, “Extreme Right-Wing concerns” formed more referrals under Prevent than Islamist concerns for the second year and more of those referred on to de-radicalisation programmes known as Channel.

However, in his 188-page assessment, Shawcross dismissed the scourge of far-right extremism and determined that professionals burdened with the duty simply don’t understand the nature of the Islamist threat and should be making more referrals of that nature.

This dogmatic assessment formed the crux of the review and ironically, pointed out what critics have been saying for years – that most referrals are unnecessary and the policy does not work. But instead of recommending scrapping the duty, Shawcross suggested extending it – to immigration and work and pension offices, including job centres and placing more focus on Islamic ideology and religious behaviour.

Prevent is harmful

There are a myriad of problems observers have identified with Prevent – its chilling effect, particularly on university campuses, has been noted, as has its incompatibility with children’s rights. What’s more, Open Rights Group has find through consultation with stakeholders that pursuit of the policy risks driving radical discourse underground, perpetuating misconceptions around faith and identity and causes ripple effects to individuals’ lives.

In the course of making a Prevent referral, a subject’s data is retained on official systems, difficult to remove, even when referrals are made in error. That retained data could be shared across multiple systems and with such little transparency on who sees that information and when, and what risk profiles it feeds into. 

recent report by Rights and Security International argued that data sharing practices of Prevent contravened human rights laws. While Shawcross acknowledged data protection issues in his report, we’d expect the independent review on this controversial policy to do more to address these data harms and other detrimental impacts of the Prevent Duty.

“ORG fears Shawcross’s assessment will add to the increasing surveillance of Muslim communities compounded by the suite of draconian draft legislation unleashed in the past year.” 

Sophia Akram

Data processing when ‘no further action’

In paragraphs 4.68 to 4.71 of the review, Shawcross described one part of data processing under Prevent. That is, Prevent referrals that go on to Channel remain on the police’s national database, the Prevent
Case Management Tracker, for six years, even when marked “no further action” (NFA), which he says is in line with ordinary police data retention protocols. He goes on to explain how that would allow patterns to be spotted when repeated referrals span different agencies which, in isolation, could be seen as low risk and thus not referred to Channel. 

In paragraph 4.70, Shawcross addresses criticism about retaining data on individuals who had not met the threshold for a Channel referral: “There is understandable unease about the prospect of individuals’ data, including that of children, remaining on a police database for so long when no criminal offence or sanction has taken place.” As a concession, Shawcross suggests a balance of NFA cases to be held for three years instead of six. 

However, as shown in the People’s Review of Prevent, those years are enough time for that data to be accessed by others and have a continuing effect on a young person’s life, including university acceptance.

Attacking the critics

Instead of addressing well publicised concerns, Shawcross doubles down on an Islamophobic rhetoric that views perspectives on oppression and opposition to official policy as “radical” and “extreme,” focusing its attention on Muslim-run organisations. Open Rights Group is one of many organisations opposed to Prevent and believes the overdue report should have gone further to overhaul its shortcomings.

ORG fears Shawcross’s assessment will add to the increasing surveillance of Muslim communities compounded by the suite of draconian draft legislation unleashed in the past year. 

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, the Online Safety Bill and the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill are only a few examples of where liberalised powers and policies of extracting data and policing information further securitises the spaces of these and other marginalised and vulnerable communities.