Privacy Law and Policy Reporter
Two years after the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) exposed NSW Police involvement in the corrupt trade in personal information, resulting in recommendations for prosecution in 52 cases (see (1994) 1 PLPR 47), it seems that the motto of some parts of the NSW Police Service is still ''we can get it for you wholesale'. In recent weeks evidence of widespread and continuing breaches of privacy by NSW Police have accumulated from a variety of sources, including newspapers, the NSW Privacy Committee, NSW Ombudsman, and the Select Committee into privacy legislation in NSW. Here are just a few stories from ''the naked city'.
A photograph of Ms Sharron Lewis, 21, was published in the Daily Telegraph Mirror in July 1993, in which her car numberplate was visible. Thirty police offices and four Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) employees subsequently accessed the RTA computer to obtain her details, including her address. Ms Lewis said she had received telephone calls from unknown callers who would hang up when she answered, and that the knowledge of the extent of access to her file made her very apprehensive. The incident was revealed by Chris Puplick, Chairman of the NSW Privacy Committee, in evidence to the Select Committee.
Two police offices disclosed the address of Ms Maureen Lomas to a man who subsequently stalked her. A police inquiry, overseen by the Ombudsman, found ''strong circumstantial evidence' that the two officers had disclosed the information. Despite not remembering the incident, they were the only ones to access her RTA file during the relevant time. The man concerned had told investigating police that he obtained the information from a friend at the RTA. Ms Lomas told the Daily Telegraph Mirror that she had been terrified when the man, who she did not know but had seen at a Leagues Club, later appeared on her doorstep. The officers, a constable and a student police officer were ''paraded and sternly reprimanded'.
In the 1993-94 financial year, the NSW Ombudsman found 44 allegations of improper disclosure of personal information by police officers to be sustained. Full details will be provided in the Ombudsman's 1994 Annual Report to be released later this year. The total number of complaints of improper disclosures in the four years since July 1990 is 543.
A random audit of access by three police patrols and 60 police offices to the new Computerised Operational Policing System (COPS) system (operational since April 1) has resulted in two constables being investigated for unauthorised access, as they were unable to account for their requests for information. The New South Wales Commander for Professional Responsibility, Mr Jeff Jarratt, gave evidence of the audit to the Select Committee.
The context in which this evidence arises makes it even more disturbing. In April this year the NSW police service introduced the (COPS), giving 13,000serving officers and 3,000 supporting public servants access to information about all criminal offenders, reported incidents and victims of crime (see (1994) 1 PLPR 46).
Despite this dramatically increased access to sensitive information, the Police Service rejected the Ombudsman's recommendation that police officers should be required to record a brief reason for accessing the information, forcing him to make a special report to Parliament on the issue (see Reports & Submissions in this issue). In an ironic development, the NSW Police Association is reported to have advised its members to make a diary entry specifying the reason for all COPS accesses in future (Sydney Morning Herald, 9 July 1994).
In the absence of any recording of reasons for access, is it reasonable to assume that the hundreds of complaints of improper disclosure that are made to the Ombudsman and the Privacy Committee are ''all tip and no iceberg'?
The NSW Ombudsman has recommended that where complaints against police for disclosure of confidential information are sustained, the matter should normally proceed to the Police Tribunal for a hearing and recommendation as to penalty (Annual Report 1993). This was due to considerable Police Service inconsistency in discipline in such cases, and because the Crimes Act 1901 (NSW) was amended in 1990 to include a specific offence of accessing and releasing confidential information. The Police Service has not followed this recommendation, and ''has dealt with the majority of complaints as a minor disciplinary issue with the usual penalty being ''counselling' or the slightly more severe ''parading' (a more formal kind of counselling). The contention that the Police Tribunal was unlikely to recommend anything more severe was advanced as a justification for this approach.'
However, the Ombudsman cites one case which did go to the Tribunal, in which Sinclair J recommended the dismissal of the police officer from the service, stating that ''such records should be regarded as sacrosanct and any violation of the security of such records for improper purposes is a matter of great concern'. The case ''involved the release of confidential information by a police officer to embarrass the partner of a woman with whom the police officer had formerly been involved', and who was subsequently transferred from his position because of the adverse publicity involved. The officer subsequently appealed against the dismissal to the Government and Related Employee's Appeal Tribunal (GREAT), which agreed with the Tribunal's assessment of the gravity of the offence, but re-instated the officer with loss of pay during the period of dismissal and an extra two years beyond the normal time before he is to be considered for promotion.