Belfast Telegraph

Garda records 'used to snoop'

Six high-profile people including a GAA star and three media personalities had their Garda records repeatedly and inappropriately accessed by officers, a watchdog has found.

A review of the force's intelligence database Pulse revealed that one unnamed high-profile person had their records accessed more than 80 times by officers.

Details of a second well-known person were looked at 50 times by gardai.

A sample review by the Data Protection Commission revealed that a number of officers were found to have been snooping on both people.

In his report the head of the watchdog Billy Hawkes said the access to records of minor celebrities on Pulse was unjustified and particularly disturbing as the individuals had no major dealings with the Garda.

Mostly their names were on the intelligence system as victims or witnesses of a crime or incident - one had reported stolen property.

"The team identified what appeared to be inappropriate access on a surprising scale in relation to the public figures selected," the report said.

It went on: "It is imperative that inappropriate access be identified and dealt with so as to ensure that persons with access to PULSE respect the obligation that comes with that access."

Data inspectors found that the number of times the details of high-profile people were accessed bore no relation to the valid entries in Pulse for official Garda business.

And Mr Hawkes also revealed his office is examining instances where gardai have released information from the Pulse system to private investigators - also a breach of rules.

He said he also suspects there are instances when gardai released information on Pulse to journalists.

The Data Protection Commission's report overall found the Garda approach to safeguarding information demonstrated a professional police force operating in compliance legislation.

Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan said: "While any breach is unacceptable, it should be said that this relatively low number of breaches indicates that the vast majority of members are in compliance with the Data Protections Acts and the Garda Siochana Data Protection Code of Practice."

Mr Hawkes said the Garda gave his inspectors full transparency and openness during the audit with a view to identifying necessary improvements.

On the back of the audit, a revised Garda directive has been issued which warns there will be no exceptions for officers neglecting to detail why they are accessing Pulse.

There were no major issues in the force's handling of the vetting system; use of CCTV; use of subscriber data held by telecoms companies; automatic number plate recognition; and the charging and offender process, the audit found.

Mr Callinan said outstanding recommendations will be implemented.

He said the commission was right to be concerned about the release of highly sensitive personal data, adding: "I share these concerns and I have expressed my disquiet about this publicly on several occasions."

The Commissioner said a number of officers were disciplined for inappropriate access to Pulse during the audit.

Whistle-blower Sergeant Maurice McCabe is no longer allowed to access Pulse without a superior officer.

The Data Protection Commission said it carried out the audit as it had concerns that complaints showed there was insufficient oversight of those with access.

It had warned: "Investigations conducted by the gardai have taken an unacceptably long time to conduct and have rarely led to conclusions of inappropriate access "

Two protection notices must now be acknowledged when an officer is logging into Pulse.

It warns that: "Accessing or disclosing personal data for any purpose other than that for which it was obtained is strictly prohibited.

"It is inappropriate to release data in the possession of An Garda Siochana to outside agencies or individuals, and such actions will subject members to full investigation in accordance with the Garda Siochana (Discipline) Regulations 2007."

The DPC found warnings and the acknowledge notices were of limited use if not accompanied by effective oversight and enforcement measures.

In future Superintendents will be sent random lists of officers due for review over the use of Pulse.

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