Police secretly investigated the travel habits, family, friends and backgrounds of 47,000 innocent people last year after they bought plane tickets to fly into and out of Britain.
The intrusiveness has provoked fury among civil liberties campaigners and now may be stopped by Britain’s new coalition Government. The flyers were singled out by the ‘terrorist detector’ database, introduced by Labour, monitoring millions of British tourists and other travellers. Checks included scrutiny of the police national computer, financial records and analysis of ‘known associates’ before people were cleared for travel.
Yet it is understood the £1.2billion system has never led to the arrest of a terrorist – and police now use it to target ‘sex offenders and football hooligans’. Police have also used it to produce 14,000 intelligence reports on travellers for ‘future use’. They can be shared by security services worldwide. ‘Suspect’ requests likely to lead to innocent holidaymakers receiving ‘red flags’ as potential terrorists include ordering a vegetarian meal, asking for an over-wing seat and travelling with a foreign-born husband or wife.
The system will also ‘red flag’ anyone buying a one-way ticket and making a last-minute reservation and those with a history of booking tickets and not showing up for flights. A history of travel to the Middle East, Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iran will also trigger an alarm. The new figures, produced by the Association of Chief Police Officers, cover the ten months to this February.
Police arrested 2,000 people – out of a total of 48,682 investigated – after they were flagged up by the computer system. It is tied into airlines’ ticketing networks and makes judgments about travel habits and friends and family to decide if passengers are a security risk. All information passengers give to travel agents, including home address, phone numbers, email address, passport details and the names of family members, is shared with an unknown number of Government agencies for ‘analysis’ and stored for up to ten years.
The Home Office claims the system has led to arrests of murderers and rapists – and to 1,000 people being denied entry to Britain. But it refused to say if any terrorists had been caught by the system, despite it being a counter-terrorist measure. Even as the ‘profiling’ system went live, its reliability was being called into question. An internal Home Office document revealed that during testing one ‘potential suspect’ turned out to be an airline passenger with a spinal injury flying into Britain with his nurse.
Last night a police source said the e-borders system was proving an invaluable tool to covertly track terrorists and their associates and had also led to large numbers of serious criminals being brought to justice.
The highly-placed source acknowledged that because travel data was being examined on an ‘industrial scale’, ‘mistakes were made’ but said the system was designed to minimise intrusion into innocent lives.