Police databases and breaches of privacy

January 15, 2019 |

Police databases are a critically important investigative tool. They enable police to locate suspects, confirm addresses, check car ownership and registration and generally access information about individuals, often provided to the many governmental agencies through compulsion. It is then concerning when police abuse their powers to access data bases. There have been reports of such breaches in Queensland and Victoria.

In Queensland a police officer has been charged with computer hacking offences, specifically the unauthorised accessing the Queensland Police Service computer system. Interestingly this instance involved the 4th officer in the Queensland Service that has misused the police data base. In Victoria, the ABC reports that a Victorian police officer has been charged with accessing the VIctorian Police LEAP data base to locate an owner of a property which she allegedly wrongfully claimed belonged to her.

While it is welcome that rogue police officers are being prosecuted for a significant breach of trust these instances highlight a weakness in the system. The breaches involve a breach of privacy of an individual or individuals. Those people are rarely aware of the breach and it is quite difficult to bring a claim at common law and equity.

That said the Guardian reported on a case being brought by a person, a domestic violence victim, in the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal against the Queensland Police in relation to one of its members leaking her details to her former husband. It is a breach of privacy claim. True to form the Queensland Police are fighting the claim, admitting the breach but denying there was any vicarious liability.

The Guardian article provides:

The Queensland police officer who leaked a domestic violence victim’s details has been ordered to give evidence in her breach of privacy case.

Julie* was forced to go into hiding after a senior constable, Neil Punchard, accessed her address from the police QPRIME database and sent it to her former husband, who has been convicted of domestic violence.

She is seeking compensation from the Queensland police service in the Queensland civil and administrative tribunal. The state government is fighting the case on a technicality, admitting the breach of privacy but arguing that an agency cannot be held responsible for the actions of an individual.

Punchard was disciplined by the police but not suspended, sacked or charged. Last week police tried to prevent him from being called as a witness. The tribunal has ordered that he must attend.

On the eve of the hearing, Julie has published an open letter to the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, on Facebook, criticising the government for fighting her in the tribunal to try to avoid paying up to $100,000 in compensation.

The premier and attorney general have both refused to comment, citing the ongoing legal proceedings, despite legal experts saying the state cabinet has ability to end the case and offer Julie fair compensation.

Julie is self-represented in QCAT. The government has briefed a barrister to appear on its behalf.

“I wanted to openly tell you how disgraceful and damaging your decisions have been to my family and I,” Julie wrote.

“The impact of the decision to fight me just because you have the resources and power to do so is not only morally and ethically wrong, it is an abuse of position, a waste of the public purse, and does not meet the community expectations.

“I was raised to have great respect for the men and women that serve in our police service, and that idealistic view of what I thought all police were has been shattered.

“This is not a story about one rotten apple, one rogue officer. That very concept alone is a deliberate minimisation concept. It’s about the rotten apple that spread and affected many other apples in the barrel.

“What has happened to me has not been able to go on without many people enabling the decisions.”

Julie told Guardian Australia the stress of taking on the case was “overwhelming”.

“I know I am not the only one in such a situation and I sympathise with women who may lack support and are subjected to this process,” she wrote in the open letter. “That is why I am speaking, not only for myself but for all the women who are not alive to tell the story.

“I refused to be victimised any further. I will stand there on Friday in Brisbane against the lawyers your government is funding and be the voice for women that are not lucky enough to be alive to keep fighting.”

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