Exclusive: Scandal of computer snooping by public servants

THE scandal of dozens of police officers, nurses, social workers, council staff and other public servants caught snooping in the private files of people living in Yorkshire can be revealed for the first time today.

Disciplinary records released to the Yorkshire Post by police forces, NHS trusts and local councils across the region have revealed scores of cases of public workers being caught abusing their positions of trust to look up private information about people they know.

The cases include numerous police officers caught running criminal record checks against ex-partners and family members, a council finance officer in Rotherham found looking up the private details of 72 friends and neighbours, and a doctor in Doncaster caught looking at a colleague's medical records.

At one hospital, in Rotherham, a cleaner was caught only last month accessing the private medical files of a friend to determine that she had recently had an abortion. That disciplinary case is still proceeding.

At another hospital, in Sheffield, a receptionist gathered patients' personal contact records and used them for a second job as a market researcher.

The most worrying pattern of data abuse emerges at the region's four police forces, where by far the most frequent breaches of data protection have taken place.

Humberside Police said 31 members of staff had been disciplined for inappropriately accessing data over recent years, including a CID "serious crime" officer who received a written warning after running criminal record checks on his own nephew.

Other cases at the force included a traffic officer who checked the criminal records of his mother's neighbour after his mother was burgled, and an incident resolution officer who looked up details on his step-daughter's new boyfriend. Only one of the 31 was dismissed.

The force's head of professional standards, Superintendent Ray Higgins, said: "We treat informa tion security very seriously and have a dedicated team of experienced individuals who concentrate on maintaining the integrity and security of our databases."

Neighbouring North Yorkshire Police confirmed 39 cases where staff and officers have been reprimanded over the past 36 months.

Assistant Chief Constable Sue Cross said: "The use of restricted force data systems and email is monitored. This enables the force to identify any non-compliance and to investigate any suspected transgressions. A full range of sanctions are available to deal with the relatively small number of individuals who breach force policies, including verbal advice, written warnings, formal reprimands and, in the most serious cases, dismissal."

South Yorkshire Police detailed 48 cases stretching back to 2005. Most officers involved received warnings or "management advice", but several either resigned or were ordered to do so. West Yorkshire Police said there have been 22 cases of its officers receiving reprimands for inappropriately accessing data, plus a further 26 cases of police staff committing unspecified "misuse of computer offences" over recent years. Two of the officers were asked to resign and another demoted.

The force said these results did not include the written warnings it sent in November to around 70 members of staff who had accessed the criminal records of a TV talent show contestant following a string of lurid allegations about her in the tabloid Press. Meanwhile nine NHS trusts across Yorkshire have revealed mostly isolated cases of staff being reprimanded for similar offences, including primary care trusts in Wakefield and Barnsley, and hospitals trusts in Barnsley, Goole, Mid-Yorkshire, South Tees and Rotherham.

The highest number of cases was at Doncaster and Bassetlaw Hospitals NHS Trust, where six members of staff have been reprimanded over the past three years. However, the trust insisted only three of the cases should be classed as formal disciplinary matters.

In one such case, a nurse accessed the private medical test results of her daughter's father. She was dismissed but reinstated on appeal. In another, a clerk received a written warning after looking up her brother's test results.

A spokeswoman for the trust said: "We take data security very seriously and have a number of means of ensuring that patients' personal data is not accessed inappropriately. All six cases of inappropriate access to medical records related to an individual's colleague, partner, or relative – and while this is inexcusable, it does not indicate misuse of the millions of patient records we hold."

There were five cases at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals Trust, ranging from the relatively innocent – a staff member wanting to send a birthday card to a sick relative, and checking which hospital ward they were on – to the sinister, as in the case of staff member accessing the medical records of an ex-partner's new partner. Three of the staff members involved received final warnings, and two were dismissed.

And seven of Yorkshire's 22 local councils have admitted staff have been caught inappropriately accessing data about members of the public over the past three years.

These included two at Wakefield Council who looked up information on family members – one of whom was fired – and two at Doncaster Council, including one who looked up details on an ex-partner. There were also isolated cases among staff at Hull, North Yorkshire, North-East Lincolnshire and Kirklees Councils.

At Rotherham Borough Council, two staff members were caught committing offences, including an audit and finance officer who resigned after being caught accessing the records of 72 neighbours out of "personal curiosity".

A spokeswoman said the authority took such incidents "very seriously indeed" and "acts immediately". She added: "Fortunately, this situation is quite rare. The breach of these codes of conduct has only arisen twice in the past three years and neither was done for malicious reasons – simply that the officers went above and beyond their individual duties."