Keeping an eye on the state

POWER and irresponsibility have been linked since time immemorial but, as the revelations of this newspaper show today, new technologies create the need for new forms of vigilance.

The abuse of data by dozens of police officers, nurses, social workers and council staff is deeply unpleasant and underlines the fact that some human beings cannot help but give in to temptation.

They are doing it on a scale hitherto unrealised, however. From those with trivial motivations, such as the police who peeked at the record of a contestant on The X-Factor, to those with a cruel form of curiosity, such as the cleaner who checked a friend's medical files to determine she had recently had a termination, public servants across Yorkshire have been abusing their positions. In some cases, such as with the Sheffield hospital receptionist who used patients' contact records in a second job as a market researcher, it is a commercially motivated form of intrusion.

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While police forces, NHS trusts and local authorities were right not to sack all those caught breaking the rules in this way, they must come down hard on repeat offenders. Snooping of this kind is invasive and an exploitation of the privileged access such workers enjoy.

It also has a harmful long-term effect. The improper behaviour of a minority of staff risks undermining relationships between ordinary Britons using the services, such as patients and victims of crime, and the people who are there to help them in their hour of need. Such a relationship must not be poisoned.

That the potential exists to do so, however, underlines how the relationship between the individual and the state has changed in the post-war era. Official bodies now hold vast swathes of information on most of us and, as such, there are obvious security hazards in workers using that data improperly or, worse still, of it getting into the hands of identity fraudsters.

Clearly, it is obvious that some of this information should be retained, such as comprehensive medical records, but the coalition must consider whether it is necessary to maintain quite so much of it. Councils, in particular, have slowly acquired the powers to peer into countless aspects of our lives, but this is not always good for democracy. The shrinking of the state in 2011 should mean fewer opportunities for the prying eyes of its employees.