Northern Ireland police officers demand security guarantees after data breach

Data was mistakenly revealed in a case of 'human error' in response to a freedom of information request

An officer from the PSNI during a security alert at The Houben Centre, Belfast. PA
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Police officers in Northern Ireland have demanded to know how their security will be ensured after a “monumental” data breach revealing the names, ranks and other personal information of staff.

The data, which related to thousands of officers, was mistakenly released in a case of "human error" in response to a freedom of information request.

The force published the names and details – including where the staff work, but not their home address – of all police and civilian personnel online after a routine inquiry into the breakdown of officers by rank. The post has since been removed.

It came on the same day it was revealed Britain's election watchdog had been targeted in a complex cyber incident, which involved its systems being accessed by “hostile actors”.

Liam Kelly, chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, said he has been inundated with messages from officers after the breach.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Wednesday: "Since this story broke yesterday afternoon I've been personally inundated with officers who are outlining that they are shocked, dismayed and basically angry that this has happened.

"Our officers go to great lengths to protect their identities. Some of them don't even tell their close friends and associates that they are actually in the police."

He added: "Certainly in my 29 years of the police I've never experienced something like this, and quite rightly the PSNI have declared this matter as a critical incident and have reported it to the Information Commissioner's office.

"What my members and myself clearly need to hear from the PSNI is the steps that they intend to take to support not only our officers but their families."

He said there are a “spectrum of officers”, from people in senior management who are publicly known to be police officers, “but there are a lot of officers in our service who don't have that freedom available to them, for all manner of reasons”.

He said some might be working for the security services in MI5, adding: "There are a number of our officers who work in very sensitive roles. Roles where a veil of secrecy is required because of the nature and the danger associated with that role.

"Following the attempted murder of our colleague DCI John Caldwell the security threat was reviewed and upgraded again [in March].

"Our officers operate under the veil of the highest potential threat to them both on and off duty and so it's important that they do take precautions around their movements and actions and that the organisation protects them as well."

He said that legal action is "something we will consider once the investigation concludes" and that he is not willing to initiate a vote of no confidence in the chief constable "at this point".

Alliance leader Naomi Long MLA said the scale of the PSNI data breach is concerning.

Ms Long said immediate action must be taken.

"This level of data breach is clearly of profound concern, not least to police officers, civilian staff and their families, who will be feeling incredibly vulnerable and exposed tonight, and in the days ahead," she said.

"Immediate action must be taken to offer them proper information, support, guidance and necessary reassurances regarding their and their families' security.

"Whilst the personal data has now been removed, once such information has been published online, it leaves an indelible footprint.

"That such sensitive information could ever have been held in a manner open to such a breach is unconscionable and will require serious investigation. However, the most urgent issue is supporting those whose security has been compromised."

The former justice minister added: "Alliance representatives on the Policing Board are seeking an urgent meeting of the board to be convened with PSNI senior management team to address this unprecedented security breach."

The Ulster Unionist Party representative on the PBNI, Mike Nesbitt MLA, called for an emergency meeting of the policing board.

In response to the leak of the personal data on Tuesday evening, Mr Nesbitt said: "It is imperative that officers, staff and their families and friends understand how seriously this breach is being taken, and that the board is determined to fulfil its oversight and challenge functions appropriately," he said.

"There are several issues here. First, ensuring those who now feel themselves at risk are given a realistic assessment of the implications of the data breach.

"Second, why was there no 'fail safe' mechanism to prevent this information being uploaded.

"Third, there is the question of whether it was a genuine mistake and, here, the principle of innocent until proven guilty applies.

"I view this like a serious incident when people are seriously physically injured. The priority is to assist the injured. Only after that do you turn to examine the other issues.

"In other words, my thoughts are with those whose names have been released into the public domain, who had a reasonable expectation this would never happen."

Updated: August 09, 2023, 9:04 AM