Law enforcement is granted access to vast databases of personal information
Law enforcement is granted access to vast databases of personal information

Police officers are ‘persistently' abusing their investigatory powers by using them for personal matters, according to the Police Federation, the staff association for police constables, sergeants and inspectors.

There are roughly two cases a week in which officers break data protection laws, it said. Offenders often end up in court or being faced with misconduct charges by inappropriately accessing resources meant to aid investigation such as the Police National Computer (PNC), which holds vast databases of personal information, or the Automatic Number Plate Recognition system, which is used to identify vehicles and their owners.

The Federation's head of crime and misconduct claims, Andy Ward wrote in a recent issue of the federation's publication, Police Magazine: “In the majority of cases, the officer thinks that they are doing it for the right reasons – they're either looking into family members, friends, neighbours or others they know, often because they are concerned about those individuals or people close to them.”

The penalties for these infringements are neither low nor infrequent. Federation HQ regularly deals with over 6000 applications for legal assistance and £17 million a year on representation. Despite the caseload, the Police Federation cannot guarantee representation every time.

The cost of such abuse could be more than a mere monetary figure. National Police Chiefs' Council lead for ethics and integrity, chief constable Martin Jelley told SC Media UK, “Police officers abusing their powers by violating data protection undermines the trust and consent that the public places in our service. Whatever the reason, it is wholly inappropriate for police officers to access private data for reasons unrelated to lawful and approved police work.”

While police officers are given access to a great deal of personal information which is critical to law enforcement, that data is rich with personal information, too. A recent Home Office review found that the police hold 19 million custody images on the police national database, many of whom are innocent of any wrongdoing.

If officers abuse those resources, they could face criminal charges under section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998, the same section under which hackers and cyber-criminals are charged for “improperly accessing data”.

Camilla Graham Wood, legal officer at Privacy International, told SC,  “We must ensure there are strict safeguards in place restricting and logging access to these systems; effective regulations and oversight. We need to be assured that those who abuse the system are held to account.”

Ward encouraged officers to take the appropriate course of action when dealing with personal matters by passing it up to their supervising officer to see whether it would be lawful.

“What they should not do,” added Ward, is “look up their ex-wife's new boyfriend themselves – even if it is because they are worried about the safety of their children – or find out who owns the car parked across the street.”