UK cops abuse IT systems to spy

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) needs to wake up and take some proper action against police officers who abuse their position to access personal data.

Instead of making “lily livered excuses”, the information commissioner must “bloody do something instead of just sitting there and making small steps,” Big Brother Watch has warned.

The statements come as the privacy advocates announced nearly 1,000 UK police workers have been disciplined over the past three years – for abusing their position to access personal data on police databases. Of this number, 98 had been dismissed and 243 received criminal convictions.

The findings, obtained through a freedom of information request, also identified that police in Merseyside were the worst culprits. 208 police officers and staff had legal cautions for viewing computer records relating to high-profile arrests.

It found that dodgy cops had used their powers to spy on colleagues, friends and families, while those with no scruples at all had even chanced their luck and looked up the progress of a court case involving football player Steven Gerrard. With that famous Rebekah Wade police-payment clip doing the rounds, it raises some eyebrows.

After they had been rumbled seven of those resigned while three were slapped with written warnings.

Other areas with high rates of abuse included the West Midlands with 83 cases, Humberside with 62, South Yorkshire with 42 cases and Northumbria with 39 cases.

The revelations are timely given the current uproar surrounding News International’s phone hacking activities, and alleged illicit payments to the police in return for information, but according to Daniel Hamilton, director at Big Brother Watch, they are purely coincidental.

“We filed the Freedom of Information request at the beginning of June and the results have just come through at a time when this topic is widely spoken about,” he told TechEye.“The allegations surrounding Andy Coulson are just the tip of the iceberg.

Hamilton warns that the ICO really needs to grow a pair. “We have seen some small examples of prosecutions by the ICO but that’s not enough. The Commissioner should stop making lily livered statements an actually do what he’s there for.

“He should stop treading lightly and bloody do something instead of just sitting there and making small steps. He really needs to look at enforcement and penalties.

“Anyone in the police force found guilty of this should be disciplined; it’s the only way to send a clear message. Police forces should also undertake internal investigations to ensure this isn’t occurring in their offices,” he added.

We contacted the ICO to see what it had to say on the matter, but it wasn’t saying anything more than a blanket statement to the press.

An ICO spokesperson said: “Police officers and civilian staff can have access to substantial collections of often highly sensitive personal information. It is important that they do not abuse this access and only use the information for their policing duties.

“We expect police forces to make substantial proactive efforts to check that any access to their records is for legitimate police purposes and to take action where they discover wrongdoing. Public officials who abuse their positions can face serious consequences including criminal prosecution under the Data Protection Act.”