Chris Marshall: Police Scotland’s data farce

Police chief Sir Stephen House had to defend the inconsistent statistics coming from the force. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Police chief Sir Stephen House had to defend the inconsistent statistics coming from the force. Picture: Ian Georgeson

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EARLIER this month MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s policing committee heard about a “perverse” approach to data protection which has left dozens of officers on restricted duties.

According to the Scottish Police Federation, officers who consult old cases for guidance or offer assistance to other divisions can face criminal charges for data breaches.

Figures from the Scottish Police Authority show more than 140 serving officers are now on restricted duties, meaning they receive full pay but cannot properly contribute to tackling crime. While some of these officers face serious allegations of criminal wrongdoing, many are seemingly being punished for looking up data on the force’s computer system.

The position becomes even more farcical when we consider the very real transgressions the police are continuing to make in their use of data.

Last week senior officers from Police Scotland admitted 20,000 stop and search records had been lost because “someone pressed the wrong button”.

It followed a bizarre row between Chief Constable Sir Stephen House and the Information Commissioner that Police Scotland had been forced to release details of stop and search activity to the BBC. Responding to claims from Sir Stephen that his force had been compelled to release incorrect data under Freedom of Information laws, the Commissioner’s office said the claim was “inaccurate”.

Yesterday, Police Scotland told the Scottish Police Authority that a series of improvements are being made to the stop and search database, which one officer previously described as “clunky”.

However, members of the SPA board called for an independent review of data management.

But while stop and search has grabbed all the headlines of late, it is the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act which is perhaps a more sinister development.

The controversy over Ripa grew last year when it emerged the Metropolitan Police had used the act to obtain journalists’ phone records while investigating the so-called “Plebgate” affair The murky nature of Ripa and how the act is overseen means we don’t know if Police Scotland has used the powers or not.

What we do know is that Scottish councils have been making use of the powers – Glasgow City Council obtained communications data last year as part of an investigation into illegal money lending.

Data gathering continues to be an important tool in fighting crime. But the revelations of the past few weeks have shown the need to develop effective, and consistent, safeguards when it comes to protecting that data.

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