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Northern Ireland police were investigating a data breach on Tuesday that led to the names and roles of thousands of serving officers being published on a public website.
The body representing rank-and-file officers criticised the security blunder, saying it could cause “incalculable damage” in the wrong hands.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland stated that the data “contained the surnames and initials of current employees alongside the location and department within which they work. No other personal information was included.”
The revelation of such personal details could, however, prove serious in a region where police have often found themselves targets and where one of the force’s most senior detectives, who was investigating organised crime and paramilitary activity, narrowly survived a murder attempt earlier this year.
“The information was taken down very quickly,” Assistant Chief Constable Chris Todd, the PSNI’s senior information risk owner, said.
At a news conference in Belfast on Tuesday night he apologised to officers for the “simple human error”, saying: “This is unacceptable.”
“We operate in an environment, at the moment, where there is a severe threat to our colleagues from Northern Ireland-related terrorism and this is the last thing that anybody in the organisation wants to be hearing this evening,” he added, promising a thorough investigation.
The information was visible on a public website for more than two hours.
The data was published as part of a freedom of information request, the PSNI said, but no further details of who had requested it or for what reason were immediately available.
The UK’s Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, said he was “deeply concerned” and was in close contact with senior officers to remain updated.
The Police Federation for Northern Ireland, which represents all ranks up to chief inspector, said the incident was a “breach of monumental proportions”, involving data that, “in the wrong hands, could do incalculable damage”.
The Belfast Telegraph newspaper said details published included those of 40 PSNI staff based with the UK intelligence service, MI5 and others whose duties involved protecting senior politicians and judges.
Northern Ireland’s terrorism threat level was increased in March to the second-highest level — severe — from substantial, indicating an increased likelihood of attacks in a region that remains riven by deep differences 25 years since a peace deal ended three decades of conflict.
The police federation’s chair, Liam Kelly, said police were “appalled . . . shocked, dismayed and justifiably angry”.
“We’re fortunate that the PSNI spreadsheet didn’t contain officer and staff home addresses. Otherwise we would be facing a potentially calamitous situation,” Kelly added.
The PSNI was launched in 2001, after the end of the Troubles, which involved republicans fighting to reunite Ireland, loyalists battling to remain British and the UK security forces. At the time, the mainly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary, the PSNI’s predecessor force, was often targeted in republican attacks.
Sinn Féin, the largest political party in Northern Ireland, criticised the data breach, saying that as many as 10,000 officers had been affected. Their lives, and those of their staff and families, could also have been put at risk as a result.
“We need to know how this breach occurred,” Gerry Kelly, the party’s policing spokesman, said in a statement.