Coppers in England and Wales are "persistently" committing data breaches, according to the Police Federation's head of misconduct.
Technologies from the Police National Computer (PNC) systems through to the Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) databases are "increasingly being used by officers for non-work related reasons" according to the Police Federation, the statutory staff association for officers – all of whom are barred from joining an ordinary trade union under the Police Act 1996.
"Computer misuse is a serious issue and if officers commit data protection breaches – outside of lawful policing purposes – they are likely to face very significant penalties," warned Andy Ward, the federation's deputy general secretary and head of crime and misconduct claims.
Criminal misuse of the PNC has been an issue for years, although misuse for a lawful purpose is something of a grey area. Last year, the biometrics commissioner warned that police employees were effectively hacking the PNC to unlawfully retain suspects' biometric data.
"We're seeing about two cases a week involving data protection breaches," Ward said. "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.
"If officers have concerns about people they know, or if they are approached to access the PNC for a friend, then there are ways of dealing with these issues without breaking the law.
"Officers need to distance themselves, and raise the concerns in the first instance to their supervisor who will decide on the best course of action and, if they are for lawful policing purposes, may be able to conduct intelligence searches on their behalf, or pass it on to someone who can.
"What they should not do, for example, is take the law into their own hands and 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. Those types of actions are only likely to lead them into serious trouble."
In an average year the federation spends around £17m on legal advice and representation for police in civil and criminal cases, and deals with more than 6,000 applications for legal assistance, including employment tribunal cases.
It also receives about 2,500 criminal and misconduct allegations at the joint claims office, although there are many more outside the national office, and says it carries approximately 1,000 ongoing live cases at any one time – some of which will last for several years.
Ward added: "From a representative perspective, we cannot guarantee that legal representation will be provided by the federation in every case as each must be considered on its merits; we will look not only at whether the matter occurred on duty but also the extent to which it could be said to be in the performance of police duty." ®