Clampdown on illegal use of police computer

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The Independent Online
JA new anti-corruption unit is to examine the national computer systems of all police forces in England and Wales following concern that confidential information is being illegally obtained by officers and sold or passed on to friends.

The four-strong team of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, the official watchdog organisation, will examine the security surrounding the Police National Computer (PNC), whose entries include criminal records and vehicle ownership.

Among those abusing the system are former and serving police officers who have been paid - sometimes by journalists and private investigators - to find out criminal and private details of people under investigation. Officers have also used confidential files for personal reasons such as checking up on the new partners of their ex-girlfriends.

Criticism of the Metropolitan Police's safeguards, which were described as "inadequate" in a recent report by HMIC, have already led to stricter security measures being introduced.

The establishment of a national audit and the new computer squad will be announced by HMIC next month in their annual report. It is understood that other organisations such as the security services and the Transport Police may also be examined by the inspectors.

HMIC will say in its report that the measures are needed partly because of government proposals to allow employers to check the criminal records of potential employees via a vetting agency - thereby increasing the risk of abuse. The inspections of the 43 forces in England and Wales will take place over the next three years; a handful of audits have already been completed.

The independent Police Complaints Authority first highlighted the abuse of the PNC system in 1986. A spokesman said: "Ten years later we are still seeing misuse of the PNC which we consider a very serious matter."

Two Metropolitan Police officers, Paul Bignell, 36, and Victoria Parker, 31 - the colleague he has since married - were fined pounds 300 each and face losing their jobs after being found guilty in June of illegally using the PNC to gain information about Gary Howells, his ex-wife's new boyfriend. Yesterday they launched an appeal against their convictions.

There are supposed to be stringent checks on each entry to the computer to ensure the information is needed for a legitimate case. The use of this information for private or commercial inquiries is a breach of the Data Protection Act and the Official Secrets Act.