Over 900 police officers and staff have breached the Data Protection Act (DPA) over the past three years, risking criminal prosecution by illegally accessing confidential databases, according to privacy group Big Brother Watch.
The revelations come from Freedom of Information requests filed last month by the group with every police force in England, asking whether any officers or civilian employees had been convicted, sacked or disciplined for breaching the DPA.
Big Brother Watch found that a staggering 904 officers and staff had been disciplined internally for such breaches between 2007 and 2010. A total of 98 had been sacked and 243 had received criminal convictions.
Daniel Hamilton, director of Big Brother Watch, argued that police forces need to take a zero tolerance approach to breaches of the DPA.
"Our investigation shows that not only have police employees run background record checks on friends and possible partners, but some have been convicted for passing sensitive information to criminal gangs and drug dealers," he said.
"This is at best hugely intrusive, and at worst downright dangerous."
The revelations come in the week that Rupert Murdoch was forced to close Britain's oldest newspaper, the News of the World, after allegations that journalists had hacked the voicemails of murdered schoolchildren and war widows and even paid police for leads.
Raj Samani, European chief technology officer at McAfee, told V3.co.uk that the research highlights yet again the very real insider threat facing organisations.
"People either consciously or subconsciously accessing information they are not entitled to clearly demonstrates that organisations should enforce the need-to-know principle through process based controls and technology," he added.
Data protection watchdog the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) said that both it and the director of public prosecutions could open investigations into such illegal activity.
"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," it added in a statement.
"Public officials who abuse their positions can face serious consequences including criminal prosecution under the Data Protection Act."
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