Police breaking laws to snoop on private data

Peter Bunyan, a former Devon and Cornwall PCSO, who was jailed for seven years after being convicted of misconduct in a public officePeter Bunyan, a former Devon and Cornwall PCSO, who was jailed for seven years after being convicted of misconduct in a public office
Peter Bunyan, a former Devon and Cornwall PCSO, who was jailed for seven years after being convicted of misconduct in a public office
Hundreds of police staff, including high-ranking officers, have been censured for breaching data protection laws – from snooping on their children and ex-wives, to social media gaffes.

In one case, a Pc faced action after wrongly telling family members that a loved one had died.

Others breached data protection regulations to access confidential and personal information, spreading rumours in the communities they were policing.

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More than 100 staff were sacked and nearly 200 resigned as a result of breaches in England and Wales during a five-year period, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Javed Khan, chief executive of Victim Support, said: “It is very worrying to think that the personal data of victims of crime – who are often extremely vulnerable – might be being accessed and used inappropriately by people in a position of trust.

“Victims rightly expect that their privacy and the information they give will be respected when they report a crime.”

Police forces recorded a total of 2,031 cases of data protection breaches between January 2009 and October 2013. Of those, 70 were in South Yorkshire, 80 in North Yorkshire and 70 in Humberside.

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West Yorkshire was one of only four forces nationally not to provide any details, with the force claiming it would take too long to locate the information requested.

Investigations led to 186 resignations, while 113 were sacked as a result of their behaviour.

Of those investigated, at least 34 were inspectors or chief inspectors, while 474 were deemed “staff” – civilian officers who do not get involved with rank-and-file policing.

While some incidents involved police leaking information on social networking sites and spreading rumours in local communities, others used the police database to snoop on the personal details of family members, friends and associates.

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A sergeant with Humberside Police received a final written warning after accessing police records to send text messages while a Lancashire Pc received management action after an allegation that she “wrongly divulged information about the death of her estranged husband to her daughter shortly after his death”.

The force did not provide any further details of the incident.

Avon and Somerset Constabulary reported the highest number of incidents, 289, including a chief inspector who received management action for being “negligent when disclosing personal information”.

Social media etiquette also fell short for two staff with Gloucestershire Constabulary, who were censured for disclosing information on a social media site and inappropriate comments made about a work-related case.

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There was a considerable spike in the data for Merseyside Police in 2009, when there were 154 data breaches – almost all of which were connected to each other.

A force spokesman said the high figure in 2009 was attributable to an internal investigation that year into people in the force “viewing a computer record relating to a high-profile arrest”.

The Information Commissioner’s Office, which upholds information rights among public bodies, said it had fined two forces £220,000 in recent years after “serious failings” were uncovered.

An ICO spokesman said: “Police officers and civilian staff can have access to substantial collections of often highly sensitive personal information.

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“It is important that they do not abuse this access and only use the information for their policing duties. Public officials who abuse their positions can face serious consequences including criminal prosecution under the Data Protection Act.”

Last March, a married PCSO who worked in Cornwall was jailed for seven years after being convicted of misconduct in a public office.

Father-of-two Peter Bunyan, 40, was found guilty of eight counts at Taunton Crown Court – though the sentence was later halved on appeal. The court heard that he had illegally accessed data relating to three vulnerable women on the Criminal Information System.

Last month a former Warwickshire Police officer was given a suspended prison sentence after pleading guilty to five counts of misuse of a computer and one of harassment of a woman.

David Hilton, 50, who lives in Derbyshire, was sentenced to four months in prison, suspended for 12 months. He was also ordered to do 200 hours’ unpaid work and pay £415 costs.