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Armagh police officer sacked over unauthorised computer access handed fines in court

Armagh Magistrates' Court

A former police officer who lost his job for accessing the PSNI computer system without authority and unlawfully obtaining personal data has been fined at Armagh Magistrates’ Court.

Sam Williams, 33, whose address was given as PSNI Headquarters at Knock Road in Belfast committed the offences on various dates between June 9, 2020 and May 31, 2021.

These involved four counts each of causing a computer to perform a function with intent to secure access to a program or data and obtaining or disclosing personal information.

Two of these charges related to information held on two women, while the remainder refer to entries and associated records of occurrences and personal data in respect of criminal incident, which allegedly occurred in May 2021

It is understood Williams was based in Armagh PSNI Station at the time of offending.

The court heard he was arrested on March 24, 2022 and asked to explain his knowledge of the use and accessing of the PSNI computer system.

He was specifically asked if he had done this without lawful reason to do so, however in response to that and all questions he provided ‘no comment’ replies.

Records revealed in the first instance in June 2020 Williams had searched the system in respect of one person and viewed all details held against them.

Examination of his phone revealed he was in a sexual relationship with this person, but this only began after the access had taken place.

Then in July 2020 he again carried out “a series of checks” on a second person, and likewise viewed all information held, and in this instance phone examination showed he and the person were friends.

It emerged this individual had asked Williams for help as a police officer in regard to Covid legislation and what constituted a violation.

The final matter occurred in May 2021 when someone asked Williams to find out details of an incident, which he initially refused, but then did look up on the PSNI computer.

District Judge Peter McGill remarked: “He was checking out two people he knew. Information was obtained but not disclosed. A lot of this was nosiness more than anything else.”

Williams admitted the four counts of accessing, but his barrister argued there was a level of duplication in the remaining matters.

The prosecution maintained they are separate issues as one could not be done without the other stating: “In order to obtain or disclose, access had to be gained and steps taken to cause it. That step could be done without obtaining or disclosing the information in question.

District Judge Peter Magill queried the point around obtaining information because “he didn’t do that”.

“He looked up stuff he shouldn’t have. It seems to be obtaining and disclosing is more serious than looking something up. One is a person being nosy but the other goes further. It’s complicated. I think technically the prosecution is correct. However, factually there is force in the argument of duplicity between accessing and obtaining/disclosing.”

Imposing fines totalling £600 the judge told Williams: “I’m not entirely unsympathetic. You lost your job because of this. Obviously, this should not have been done. We require certain standards of our public servants and unfortunately you fell short. That said, this was not an egregious data breach. It was done for an extremely underhand reason. I have come across much, much worse cases. You’ve already suffered a pretty severe penalty in the loss of your career.”

When the case first reached court last month the PSNI were asked to clarify his current employment status and a spokesperson replied: “The individual is no longer employed by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.”

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