UK scrambles to protect Afghan interpreters after data breach

Official is suspended over email error involving 250 Afghan interpreters

Britain is moving urgently to protect Afghan interpreters after a Ministry of Defence (MoD) data breach.

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told MPs an employee at the department had been suspended while an investigation was under way. The names and email addresses of more than 250 interpreters who previously worked for Britain were sent in an open email.

Pictures of some of the translators hoping to be flown to Britain were also visible to all recipients of the email.

Mr Wallace said he was angry when he heard about the data breach and said additional measures were being put in place to protect the safety of interpreters at risk from the Taliban.

He said: “So far, one individual has been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation and processes for data handling and correspondence processing have already been changed.

“I have directed extensive steps are taken to quantify the potential increased risk to individuals in order to take further steps to protect them.”

The Defence Secretary expressed his outrage over the breach, adding, “to say I was angered by this was an understatement”.

He suggested the email had been sent as part of a weekly contact maintained between the MoD and interpreters remaining in Afghanistan.

“This was copied to all applicants rather than blind copying them," he said.

“The email was immediately recalled on identification of the breach and then a subsequent email was sent advising people to delete their email and change their addresses, many of whom have done.”

Earlier, it was reported that some of those whose information was released are in hiding from the Taliban after the militants took control of the country last month.

Johnny Mercer, the former minister for veterans, said the “vast majority” of Afghan translators previously employed by the British Army were left behind as he criticised the UK government’s handling of the crisis.

“The truth on how we have treated our Afghan interpreters will come out,” he said.

“All the back slapping over Operation Pitting masks a criminally negligent performance by the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office on doing our duty to these people.

“I reiterate, the vast majority have been left behind, probably moving house again tonight.”

Speaking to the PA news agency, Mr Mercer said the treatment of Afghan interpreters was “deeply shameful”.

He said his concerns about the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap) were a reaction to “significant misreporting” after he and others wrote to Britain's defence and home secretaries.

“Their hubris will cost lives; this latest episode will only accelerate that. Deeply shameful,” he said.

Officials said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on the specifics of the case but the BBC said more than 250 people seeking relocation to the UK were mistakenly copied into an email from the MoD asking for an update on their situation.

The opposition Labour Party's Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey said the incident had “needlessly put lives at risk".

“The priority now is to urgently step up efforts to get these Afghans safely to the UK,” he said.

“This is the second major data breach from the MoD this year, after sensitive documents were discovered at a bus stop in Kent in June. Clearly, the defence secretary needs to get his house in order.”

A spokeswoman for the MoD apologised. “An investigation has been launched into a data breach of information from the Afghan Relocations Assistance Policy team,” she said.

“We apologise to everyone impacted by this breach and are working hard to ensure it does not happen again. The Ministry of Defence takes its information and data-handling responsibilities very seriously.”

The MoD said it would take all necessary steps under the UK's General Data Protection Regulation rules.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, Mr Wallace was questioned about the breach by Labour MP Kevan Jones.

Mr Jones asked if Mr Wallace had confidence in his department’s ability to handle “sensitive and secret information”, warning there was a “habit forming” of data leaks.

Mr Wallace replied: “I fundamentally agree with his point that we are in a world with even more data, we have to be even more careful and our adversaries are even more aggressive at finding it out.

“Where there was a breach recently I took action, that individual is no longer in the department and with this case the individual is suspended.”

He added: “I think he is right, information security should go from the fingertips of an organisation — from the most junior to the most senior — and I have to say having been the previous security minister, I have seen some pretty bad examples in the last few years.”

Labour MP Yvette Cooper asked Mr Wallace how the Arap scheme was being run, citing a tragic case of one man who had contacted her.

She said: “I have been contacted about a harrowing case. A man who worked as a UK contractor on a UK project for many years and had a specific directed threat from a senior Taliban official. He fled his home with his family but when his family returned, his wife returned to the house to collect some belongings a few days ago.

“The Taliban arrived and she was shot in the head. She died a couple of days later. This man applied twice for the Arap scheme and still hasn’t had a reply. Please could he obviously make sure that this case is pursued?”

Replying to Ms Cooper, Mr Wallace said he would be “happy to look at that case”.

“We assess that despite the huge number of extra applications that have come in since we left, that there are approximately 900 credible further cases of Arap to bring forward”, he said.

The minister said that figure was on top of the 311 people that the government is currently speaking to in Afghanistan.

Updated: September 21st 2021, 2:57 PM