What Illicit Police Snooping Tells Us About Government Databases


Government officials like databases. They force us to disclose information on our finances, our cars, our health, our firearms ownership, our encounters with the legal system and a host of other data grand and petty, and they record them for purposes clear and not so much. Having compelled us to cough up the gruesome details of our life, they give us smiles that don't reach their eyes and assure us that our information is secure. And then we find out that Florida cops have been dipping into motor vehicle records to stalk their dates and for purposes of retaliation. Thanks for the assurances, folks.

According to the Orlando Sentinel:

Florida's driver-and-vehicle database, the system that can help law enforcement identify victims of fatal crashes and decipher the identity of a suspect, can be a useful tool for cops.

But the system — known as D.A.V.I.D., for Driving and Vehicle Information Database — can also be easily abused.

Data obtained by the Orlando Sentinel show the number of Florida law-enforcement officers suspected of misusing D.A.V.I.D. skyrocketed last year.

At least 74 law enforcers were suspected of misusing D.A.V.I.D. in 2012, a nearly 400 percent increase from 2011, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Most of the violations seem of the creepy but routine variety that you would expect of government officials who have too much power at their fingertips and little fear of consequences that, theoretically, include criminal charges, sanctions or ill-defined "disciplinary action." Among these was an Oviedo police officer who "made unauthorized searches in D.A.V.I.D. to look up a local bank teller he was reportedly flirting with."

Potentially more troubling are the database incursions into the records of a state trooper who had the nerve to arrest a Miami police officer at gunpoint after she observed him swerving his car in and out of traffic at speeds up to 120 MPH — his usual behavior, it emerged later. Police officers around the state apparently took umbrage at this breach of professional courtesy. According to a December report in the Sun Sentinel:

The Florida Highway Patrol trooper at the center of firestorm after she pulled over a speeding cop at gunpoint said fellow law enforcement officers have created a "life-threatening" situation that caused her to be in such fear for her safety she has become a "hermit."

Trooper Donna "Jane" Watts' 69-page lawsuit, filed in federal court Friday, seeks more than $1 million in damages. She is suing more than 100 police officers and agencies, and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. The suit alleges 88 law enforcement officers from 25 jurisdictions illegally accessed her personal information more than 200 times, violating her privacy.

The information retrieved by those 88 snooping cops included Watts's "home address, picture, Social Security number, date of birth, and detailed vehicle description." After the data incursions, she received threatening phone calls, vehicles driving by or idling in front of her home on a cul-de-sac, prank pizza deliveries …

That's all by cops to a fellow cop.

This isn't an isolated incident by any means. IRS data is a tempting target, given that money is involved. A former employee of the agency was sentenced to 105 months in prison for using tax data to craft $8 million in fraudulent returns. Then again, sometimes IRS agents just peruse the database for personal information about celebrities and neighbors. In that case, the nosy agent's targets included a Who's Who of Hollywood and professional sports.

And we're talking about government. Which means that sometimes agencies just blow it and let massive amounts of infomation get stolen. That's what happened to South Carolina's tax agency last year, reportedly as the consequence of a single phishing email. According to news reports, "[p]eople who filed tax returns electronically from 1998 on were affected, although most of the data appears to be after 2002." Interestingly, the breach revealed that South Carolina follows the IRS's security standards, which don't involve encrypting Social Security numbers.

New and looming policies promise ever-more data collection as the government becomes increasingly involved in our lives and many sectors, including healthcare, grow more regulated and centralized. And there's no reason to think the people with access to those databases will be any different than Florida cops.