On Twitter, I regularly share (from @copwatcher) news stories about policing in Britain that interest me. An item today on the Daily Mail website, about eight Essex police officers losing their jobs after illegally accessing confidential police databases, made me realise that lately I’ve been seeing similar stories appear again and again.
Looking back over my Twitter timeline, I have noticed that from November 2011, there have been six reports in only three months that involve abuse of personal data by serving officers. As well as today’s story, these include:
- A Merseyside Police officer who was dismissed this month for making 170 unauthorised checks on women over a three-year period.
- A Bedfordshire Police officer jailed for 15 months after gave information obtained from a police computer to her boyfriend, who passed it on to a friend facing arrest.
- A Derbyshire Police officer prosecuted for misusing information from a police database to target vulnerable women for sex.
- Two Lincolnshire Police community support officers forced to resign for unspecified misuse of police computers.
- Another Merseyside Police officer, a Detective Chief Inspector, charged with six counts of the unauthorised accessing of personal data.
Today’s report about Essex Police reveals that it took a whistle-blower, rather than strict rules and policies usually defended by police press officers, to highlight ‘routine abuses’ of IT systems. Although browsing back through my Twitter timeline involves a far from vigorous methodology, the number of stories from around the country does point to the possibility that this kind of routine police misuse of personal data may be far greater than reported, perhaps even commonplace.
If this is the case and if even a small proportion of these abuses of power are for financial gain (the Mail on Sunday alleges Essex officers had routinely attempted to access the private details of celebrities), then this would represent a significant level of police corruption and the kind of unhealthy relationships with the media that go way beyond the ‘drinking and flirting’ focused on by the recent report by Elizabeth Filkin. Perhaps the Levenson Inquiry, currently considering the culture, practices and ethics of the press, should consider asking for details of data protection breaches from all 43 constabularies, along with information on the number of incidents where there were suspicions that personal information was passed on to journalists?
The failure of the surveillance society to maintain control of the data it routinely hoovers up is one of the reasons why its defenders’ claim, that "if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear," has always been a myth. Data gathering is a huge operation, the depth and breadth of information held is unprecedented and it can be incredibly difficult to have personal data removed from police databases – and as two teenagers in Bishop Auckland found out in December, after helping a five-year-old girl asleep in the back of a stolen car, far easier to wrongly end up on one.
That’s what makes the prospect of endemic misuse of IT by police officers across the country so alarming.
17 January 2012: A civilian worker at Lancashire Police who was sacked for accessing personal data has told an employment tribunal that police officers and staff regularly checked files for their own benefit.
9 December 2011: the Leicestershire police inspector Tobias Day, who murdered his wife and daughter, had just been sacked for misusing his force's computer systems.