Northern Ireland police under further pressure as they investigate second data breach

The Police Service of Northern Ireland is investigating a second data breach – this time relating to stolen documents and a laptop.

Documents, including a spreadsheet containing the names of more than 200 serving officers and staff, are believed to have been taken from a private vehicle on 6 July.

A police issue laptop and radio are also thought to have been stolen in the theft in Newtownabbey, near Belfast.

The investigation comes as the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is already under pressure over a “significant” data breach relating to all of its officers and staff – around 10,000 people.

The PSNI declared a “critical incident” as the released information included the surnames, initials, the ranks or grades, as well as the work locations and departments of all PSNI staff, but did not involve the officers’ and civilians’ private addresses.

The force apologised after it inadvertently published the information in relation to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request on Tuesday.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said it was a concern that a member of staff, who she understands to be “relatively junior”, had access to the sensitive data, adding: “The seriousness of this cannot be underestimated.”

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The data is hugely sensitive in Northern Ireland where police officers are still sporadically targeted by dissident groups in bomb and gun attacks, despite a 1998 peace deal largely ending three decades of sectarian violence.

‘Extremely serious situation’

PSNI said its Chief Constable Simon Byrne is cutting his family holiday short to deal with the crisis and he is expected to answer questions from politicians about both breaches.

Assistant Chief Constable Chris Todd said after the FOI breach: “As a service we are acutely aware of the seriousness of this breach and have declared it to be a critical incident.

“We fully understand the very real concerns being felt by our colleagues and their families and we are working hard to do everything we can to mitigate any risk.

“We are working with our security partners and organisations to investigate this incident.”

He said the force has updated personal security advice to all officers and staff and set up “an emergency threat assessment group” to look at the “welfare concerns of our people”.

Read more:
Wife of officer says family now ‘living in fear’
Why the Northern Ireland data breach is so serious

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Assistant Chief Constable Chris Todd
Assistant Chief Constable Chris Todd described the situation as ‘extremely serious’

The assistant chief constable added: “As well as general advice on safety and security this multi-disciplinary group will focus on immediate support to those with specific circumstances which they believe place them or their families at immediate risk or increased threat of harm.

“We have also sought the assistance of an independent adviser to conduct an end-to-end review of our processes in order to understand what happened, how it happened and what we can do immediately to prevent such a breach happening in the future.

“This is an extremely serious situation.”

‘We have young children to protect’

The UK Information Commissioner’s office said on Tuesday it was investigating the breach while “working with the PSNI to establish the level of risk and mitigations”.

The information, which was available online for up to three hours, revealed members of the organised crime unit, intelligence officers stationed at ports and airports, officers in the surveillance unit and almost 40 PSNI staff based at MI5’s headquarters in Holywood, the Belfast Telegraph reported.

PSNI officers have been the targets of republican paramilitaries in recent years and in March the terror threat level in Northern Ireland was raised to severe.

The wife of one serving officer has told Sky News how they are living in fear and told of her anger over how it was allowed to happen.

“We already have to be careful about having that connection with the PSNI and because of that information now being in the public domain we have no control over who knows,” she said.

“We also have two young children to protect and there are still people out there who deem police officers and their families as legitimate targets so it just adds that further element of fear to our daily life.”

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‘PSNI have failed in their duty of care’

Officers contacted over earlier breach

Following the breach in July, which came to light today, ACC Todd said all officers and staff concerned have been contacted to “make them aware of the incident”.

He added that an “initial notification” has been made to the office of the information commissioner regarding the data breach.

ACC Todd continued: “This is an issue we take extremely seriously and as our investigation continues we will keep the Northern Ireland Policing Board and the Information Commissioner’s Office updated.”

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