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Opinion: Every day, some official snoops where he should not

Edward Snowden, now living in exile in Russia, revealed secret government information. But government employees often snoop into data about private citizens for personal reasons, reports the Associated Press. / AFP PHOTO / ISAAC LAWRENCEISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP/Getty Images

Every so often we hear about a 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 federal and municipal law enforcement agencies are attempting to collect more and more data about us, the Associated Press investigated how frequently government officials misuse their access to citizen information. The results of their reporting were published Wednesday.

OPINION

The AP requested reports of incidences of database misuse from all 50 states and three dozen large municipal police departments. Over just two years, the news service 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 AP acknowledges that these numbers are woefully undercounted and are likely much, much higher. And how many cases of unauthorized access don’t even get caught? What this essentially means is that every single day a government official somewhere is inappropriately looking up information about citizens.

The AP describes many cases where police use databases to stalk people, often connected to romantic entanglements. Some cases revolve around simple curiosity, such as looking up information about celebrities. This is bad enough. But in other cases 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. The 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.

The efforts by the county commissioner in Minnesota 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 AP story is about the complexity of trying to regulate the circumstances by which government officials access these databases and how to create oversight to make sure the information isn’t being misused.

Sadly, there isn’t nearly a big enough discussion about 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.

Back when Edward Snowden first leaked details about the National Security Agency collecting massive amounts of metadata from all Americans’ communications, I wrote a column explaining several reasons why people with “nothing to hide” still should be concerned. One reason 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 government-employed predators target citizens.

Scott Shackford is an associate editor at the libertarian journal Reason.com, where this column was posted.Follow the Editorial Board on Twitter: Follow @csteditorials

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