22 August 2011
All organisations have a responsibility to protect personal information. It is particularly important that the staff of government agencies do so. Many people are willing participants on social media and show little reticence about the web publication of their personal details, but the release of person information by a government agency often gets wide media attention. People want to have control over what is published about them. The choice must rest with them not with governments. The obligation of State servants to be responsible and trustworthy includes only using information for lawful purposes.
British media yesterday reported on an almost systemic breach of privacy rules by police officers. The Metropolitan Police is again on the wrong side of public confidence. Over the last ten years 142 Met officers and 66 other staff have been disciplined for misusing the national computer system. Forty five of those involved were dismissed or prosecuted.
Apparently many senior officers believe that there is frequent abuse of rules on accessing police databases. The 400 officers across all UK police forces that were disciplined for information related offences over the last ten years are a small percentage. A concern is that half of these incidents are reported to have occurred during the last three years, suggesting that standards are not improving.
A Met detective was arrested and suspended on Friday on matters relating to the News of the World phone hacking inquiry and the disclosure of police information to the newspaper. Ironically the Assistant Commissioner conducting the inquiry is concerned that details of the arrest had been leaked as her inquiry is meant to be subject to a particular emphasis on security.
One of the recommendations of the New Zealand Law Commission in its review of the Privacy Act is for the enactment of an obligation to notify an individual if their personal information is improperly disclosed. Jurisdictions in Canada and the US have mandatory breach notification legislation. Australia and Britain have good practice “voluntary” regimes. The likelihood is that in the cases where UK police officers have been disciplined for improper disclosures, the individuals concerned would have been notified.