In July 2016, the research by the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch identified more than 2,000 breaches of data protection law by British police forces in just over four years up to December 2015.
Given such a large volume of incidents and the broad approach needed to condense them into a report, it can be tempting almost to disregard such failings. When we don’t know the individuals concerned and the full facts of their cases, what happened in their cases possibly becomes abstract.
However, I believe that we shouldn’t lose sight of the very real and potentially damaging consequences which do arise.
I have been acting for a woman who had agreed to allow Greater Manchester Police make reference to the domestic abuse which she had suffered at the hands of a former partner in an effort to improve understanding among officers and support agencies tasked with helping individuals such as herself.
In doing so, she understood that the material would be anonymised, so you can imagine her distress upon learning that it was disclosed in an unanonymised form and to a wider audience.
The errors in my client’s case were aggravated by her having to bring litigation and wait more than two years for GMP to apologise for what happened.
The £75,000 payout which she has now received as part of the settlement is believed to be one of the biggest privacy damages payments ever made by a police force in this country.
I do not doubt the sincerity of the apology proffered by GMP’s Chief Constable, Ian Hopkins, who says that the consequences of his colleagues’ actions “are a matter of sincere regret”. However, it would be far better if my client had not seen her original upset compounded by a frankly unhelpful resistance to acknowledge the severity of the mistake.
She and others who rely on police for help - especially specialist officers trained to provide support for victims of crimes such as domestic abuse – do not expect to have their privacy compromised.
By deciding to publicise the conclusion of her case, my client hopes to raise awareness of her difficulties in order to prevent other men and women enduring a similarly unhappy experience.
As we pointed out last month, police forces are not obliged to report data breaches, even when those breaches concern a member of the public.