The police can access personal and private data when investigating crime – but such powers are subject to close supervision by the courts. In one case, a police force that unlawfully trawled through information held on one of its own senior officers’ mobile phones was ordered to pay her £5,000 in damages.
The officer was under investigation due to suspicions that she had falsely claimed pay for periods when she was not on duty. The force obtained authorisations under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and accessed call and location data on her two mobile phones. The data was used to check where she was at particular times against her timesheets.
She was informed that she was suspected of false accounting and gross misconduct. However, after she was interviewed under caution, the force accepted that she had no case to answer. It subsequently admitted that the authorisations had been unlawfully granted. The investigation should not have been treated as a criminal matter and obtaining the data had been disproportionate.
In ruling on a complaint brought by the officer, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) noted that there was no suggestion that the authorisations had been applied for or granted in bad faith. The data had been obtained in aid of an investigation which was reasonably believed to be necessary.
However, what happened amounted to an intrusion into both her professional and private life and had caused her significant and prolonged injury to feelings and distress. There had been a serious infringement of her human right to respect for her privacy and an award of damages was necessary to vindicate that right. The IPT found that an award of £5,000 was just and appropriate.
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