Northern Ireland police try to calm officers after huge data leak

by The Insights

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Northern Ireland police scrambled to calm 10,000 officers and staff on Wednesday after their personal details were accidentally published on the internet in a “monumental” blunder that left many fearing for their safety.

Chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland Simon Byrne insisted he would continue in his post following Tuesday’s incident and was set to attend an emergency meeting of the Policing Board, an independent oversight body, on Thursday morning.

Senior officers were expected to be questioned on the data breach and its ramifications for staff working in intelligence, undercover, counter-terrorism and surveillance duties, as well as any others for whom working for the police remains so sensitive they have never told family or friends.

Asked whether he was intending to quit over the leak, Byrne told the Financial Times: “No, I am not.”

The surnames and initials of current employees and the location and department where they work were published on a public site following a freedom of information request. A full spreadsheet was included in error.

The details did not include home addresses and were taken down within three hours, but news reports said some of it had already been shared on social media messaging groups.

The PSNI called the accidental data dump “regrettable but . . . simple human error”.

However, it included the details of 40 PSNI staff based with the UK intelligence service, MI5, and others whose duties involve protecting senior politicians and judges.

Some serving officers told local media they were now terrified for their lives and were considering leaving the force or moving house for fear they could become targets of attack, even though the “Troubles” conflict that engulfed the region for three decades ended 25 years ago.

“It isn’t just police officers who have been in touch with us overnight. It’s also their families and the families of civilians, staff members who are genuinely frightened,” Naomi Long, Alliance Party leader and a former justice minister, told BBC Radio Ulster.

Liam Kelly, chair of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, which represents rank-and-file police officers, called the breach “monumental” and said it angered and worried his members, some of whom “go to great lengths to protect their identities”.

Representatives of police officers and staff said that after the data leak, some now considered that pay and “danger money” allowances did not outweigh the risk.

Police were visible targets during the three decades-long Troubles involving republican paramilitaries fighting to reunite Ireland, loyalist gunmen battling to keep the region within the UK, and British security forces. Just over 300 police were killed during the period and officers still routinely check underneath their cars for explosive devices.

An attack in February by dissident republicans on an off-duty senior detective investigating organised and paramilitary crime highlighted how real the threat remains. Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell narrowly survived the murder attempt. The following month, the region’s terror threat was increased to the second-highest level, “severe”.

Compounding the force’s embarrassment over the data drop, Assistant Chief Constable Chris Todd said a spreadsheet containing the names of more than 200 serving officers and staff, as well as a police-issue laptop and radio, were believed to have been stolen from a private vehicle in the Newtownabbey area north of Belfast on July 6.

In April, BBC Radio Ulster host Stephen Nolan revealed on his show that documents detailing security operations ahead of a visit by US president Joe Biden had been found in the street and handed into the station.

The PSNI said it had established a group to offer “immediate support to those with specific circumstances which they believe place them or their families at immediate risk or increased threat of harm” following Tuesday’s breach.

The UK data watchdog was also investigating the incident. the UK’s Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said he was “deeply concerned”.

The debacle comes as Northern Ireland is facing a budgetary and political crisis. The region’s power-sharing executive and assembly have been paralysed for more than a year in a row over Brexit.

Byrne has already warned that the PSNI, which has worked hard to brand itself as an open and tolerant force since it was launched in 2001 to replace the Royal Ulster Constabulary, faces a €38mn funding gap and falling police numbers.

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