Every so often we hear or read news reports about a municipal government official—a police officer, a DMV clerk, et cetera—using access to databases of citizen information for unauthorized and often very illegal purposes. We've seen them use personal information to stalk ex-lovers, track down potential romantic interests, and even to facilitate identity theft.
In this age where both the federal government and municipal law enforcement agencies are deliberately attempting to collect more and more data about us, the Associated Press attempted to investigate how frequently government officials misuse their access to citizen information. The results of their investigation were published today.
What they've found is unsurprisingly concerning—and very, very incomplete. The AP requested reports of incidences of database misuse from all 50 states and three dozen large municipal police departments. Over just two years they determined there were at least 650 cases where an employee or police officer was fired, suspended or otherwise disciplined for inappropriately accessing and using information from government databases.
The Associated Press acknowledges that these numbers are woefully undercounted due to lack of reliable recordkeeping and are likely much, much higher. And how many cases of unauthorized access don't even get caught? When we spread these numbers out over time, what this essentially means is that every single day a government official somewhere is inappropriately looking up information about citizens in state or municipal databases.
The story describes many cases where police use databases to stalk people, often connected to romantic entanglements. Some cases revolve around simple curiosity—like looking up information about celebrities. These are bad enough examples on their own. There are some other examples provided, though, that highlight situations where officials and officers were—in what appears to be an organized fashion—using access to database information to snoop on and even intimidate its critics.
In one case in Minnesota, a county commissioner discovered that law enforcement and government officials had repeatedly searched databases for information about her and her family members. These searches came after she criticized county spending and programs of the sheriff's department. In Miami-Dade County in Florida, a highway trooper found herself stalked and threatened by police after she pulled an officer over for speeding in 2011, assisted with information about her from the state's driver databases. (Reason previously took note of this case, and a local newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing police officers' habit of dangerous speeding, even when off duty, on local highways.)
Also of note: The efforts by the county commissioner to fight back were unsuccessful because she couldn't prove the searches about her and her family were not permitted. A good chunk of the story is about the complexity of trying to regulate the circumstances by which government officials access these databases and how to engage in oversight to make sure the information isn't being misused.
Sadly, that means there isn't nearly a big enough discussion of what information city government should be gathering and storing in the first place. Police, just like the federal government, have been increasingly collecting and storing data about citizens even when they're not even suspected of any criminal behavior whatsoever. There has not been nearly enough of a connection between the capacity of government officials to threaten and intimidate citizens and how this push for more and more data helps make it happen.
Heaven knows Reason has been raising the alarm. Back when Edward Snowden first leaked details about the National Security Agency (NSA) collecting massive amounts of metadata from all Americans' communications, I explained several reasons why people with "nothing to hide" still needed to be concerned about government collection of their personal info. One of the reasons was exactly what we see here: Occasionally there are people in government who themselves have bad intent and seek to harm others. All this information helps facilitate government-employed predators targeting citizens.
Read more from the AP study here.