While police are fighting to protect the identities of officers during the ‘spycops’ public inquiry into undercover policing, an Avon and Somerset Police Facebook group has exposed the identities of former officers, including covert police.
Avon and Somerset Police have jeopardised the privacy and safety of former officers by publishing hundreds of photos of them on Facebook, retired police officers have told the Cable.
Some of the officers who had their photos published have left Avon and Somerset Police (ASP) but are now serving with other forces, including the National Crime Agency.
Retired officers have reported their concerns to the Cable, saying that personal data has been seriously mishandled, and that they fear the information could be misused by the criminal underworld.
ASP have since removed the pictures, which date from the 1930s to the 1990s, and said they were looking into the incident after receiving a complaint.
In some cases, the photos, which were originally taken for the officers’ warrant cards (police identification cards), also included ranks, collar numbers and the names of individual officers. The Cable understands that the photos came from the ASP archive and were published by a volunteer archivist working for force on the Avon and Somerset Heritage and History Facebook group.
At the end of May, over 1,100 people were publicly listed as members. Anyone could apply to become a member, and once they joined, members could approve others into the group.
One former ASP firearms officer told the Cable that he was shocked to find a photo from his 1986 warrant card had been published online without his permission.
The officer told the Cable: “I have friends who worked undercover and on surveillance units for Avon and Somerset and some that still work there.
“Given the very dangerous nature of the work they did and still do, they are not on social media to help protect their identities, so they were very shocked and upset when these photographs started appearing on Facebook and were genuinely scared for their safety,” he said.
A serving covert Detective Sergeant for the National Crime Agency, who formerly worked for ASP, is said to have had his photo published without consent in the Facebook group. Below the post with his photograph, comments from old colleagues reportedly revealed his true name.
In another shocking blunder reported to the Cable, a retired ASP Special Branch Officer (units responsible for national security and intelligence) was devastated to find his photograph and correct name published last year on the Avon and Somerset NARPO, a Facebook group for and administered by retired ASP officers.
The former officer had investigated violence related to the Northern Ireland conflict and was a key secret witness at an Old Bailey trial in the 1990s. Despite efforts by the national press at the time, his identity remained secret. This secrecy is said to have guarded him from a contract on his life by the Provisional Irish Republican Army.
Another former ASP officer was shocked to discover that a photo of his father, a retired Detective Sergeant, had been published on the History and Heritage Facebook group, saying, “I was really worried that mine was coming next”. The photo had been published without his father’s permission.
Yet another retired officer told the Cable she was “absolutely terrified” to find photos of former colleagues being published and feared that her photo would soon follow. The officer said that the photos had “made us [retired ASP officers] very vulnerable”.
The Cable understands that ASP created the Facebook group, and in June 2016 advertised a vacancy for a volunteer to administer it. Nowhere in the listed job description does it state that the post holder should have more than a general understanding of data protection legislation.
Following a complaint to ASP and the recent introduction of GDPR regulation, the photos of individual officers in the History and Heritage group were removed, and ASP digital communications officers have taken over the administration of the group.
Although the group privacy settings have now been changed, ASP retired officers have expressed their concerns that photos could have been downloaded and shared by members beforehand.
An Avon and Somerset Police spokesperson said: “We’re aware of a complaint about the publication of specific photos and information on the Avon and Somerset History and Heritage Facebook Group page.
“We’re looking into the complaint and have already taken action by removing affected posts/photos. We’ve also amended the privacy settings as an additional security measure.
“As we’re still looking into the detail of the complaint, we’re unable to comment further at this time.”