By Phil ScullionFollow @PhilScullion
More than 900 police staff abused their access to confidential databases over a three-year period, it has been claimed.
The research findings from civil liberties group Big Brother Watch (BBW), which cover 2007 to 2010, were described by BBW director Daniel Hamilton as "astonishing".
Two hundred and forty three staff and officers received criminal convictions for breaching the Data Protection Act (DPA), and 98 lost their jobs, a freedom of information request revealed.
Many of the searches included background checks on friends and potential partners, but the information was also at times used in a far more sinister manner.
Mr Hamilton said: "Some have been convicted for passing sensitive information to criminal gangs and drug dealers. This is at best hugely intrusive and, at worse, downright dangerous."
The findings follow allegations that Andy Coulson, who served as David Cameron's communications director at No 10 for four years, paid the police in order to receive privileged information.
Emails handed over by News Corp appear to show that Mr Coulson, then News of the World editor, authorised payments made by staff to police.
A News Corp spokesman told Vanity Fair: "It is correct to state that new information has recently been provided to the police.
"We cannot comment any further due to the ongoing investigation."
Mr Hamilton described the allegations surrounding Mr Coulson as "the tip of the iceberg".
BBW's research showed a number of alarming cases which suggest the problem is endemic within the police force.
In Merseyside a combined total of 208 police officers and staff faced internal disciplinary action for "viewing a computer record relating to a high profile arrest."
Meanwhile in Lancashire one member of police staff was found guilty of disclosing confidential policing information on Facebook, whilst another received just a written warning for conducting 53 criminal record checks "for no obvious policing purpose".
Mr Hamilton said: "Police forces must adopt a zero tolerance approach to this kind of behaviour. Those found guilty of abusing their position should be sacked on the spot."