UK government staff have been caught accessing private and confidential citizen data, according to details obtained through Freedom of Information requests made by Channel 4's investigative program Dispatches.
The data, which includes medical records, social security information, employment details and criminal records, was accessed by employees of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health. At least 1,000 civil servants were disciplined for unauthorised access to personal data between April 2010 and January 2012.
Though the Department of Health says it did not record every instance of illegal access to citizens' medical records, there was a fivefold increase - from 28 cases in 2007 to 158 in 2011 - in breaches of confidential health records over the past four years.
Obtaining or disclosing personal data without prior permission is considered a criminal offence under the Data Protection Act and is punishable by a fine of up to £5,000 in a lower magistrates court or an unlimited fine in a higher Crown court.
In a strange twist of irony, the Queen's announcement earlier in May that the government would be monitoring all UK web, email and phone activity was met by backlash from privacy activists.