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PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne Niall Carson/PA Images
Northern Ireland

Dissident republicans claim to have information after PSNI data breach, Chief Constable says

Some 10,000 PSNI officers and staff have been affected by the breach, which emerged on Tuesday.

LAST UPDATE | 10 Aug 2023

NORTHERN IRELAND’S CHIEF Constable Simon Byrne has said that dissident republicans claim to be in possession of information circulating on WhatsApp following a data blunder.

Speaking to the media after facing questions at a meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, Byrne has said he is “deeply sorry” over the “industrial scale breach of data”.

Byrne cut short a family holiday to return to Belfast to be questioned by politicians at the emergency meeting.

Some 10,000 PSNI officers and staff have been affected by the breach, which emerged on Tuesday.

The incident happened when the PSNI responded to a Freedom of Information request seeking the number of officers and staff of all ranks and grades across the organisation.

In the published response to this request a table was embedded which contained the rank and grade data, but also included detailed information that attached the surname, initial, location and departments for all PSNI employees.

The data was potentially visible to the public for between two and a half to three hours.

Speaking to reporters this afternoon, Byrne said the priority “has to be remaining alert to the safety and welfare of both officers and staff as we deal with this unprecedented incident”.

“I am deeply sorry about what has happened when we have seen an industrial scale breach of data that has gone into the public domain,” Byrne said. 

“We quickly established a critical incident command structure … so that we can work flat out to get answers to the questions that are on everybody’s lips both within the organisations and beyond that,” he said. 

“An early worst case scenario that we have been dealing with is that third parties would attempt to get this data to intimidate, corrupt or indeed cause harm to our officers and staff.

“We are now aware that dissident republicans claim to be in possession of some of this information circulating on WhatsApp, and as we speak we are advising officers and staff about how to deal with that and any further risk that they face.”

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris spoke to Byrne yesterday about the breach, which he described as a “very serious matter”.

‘Hugely damaging’

SDLP Policing Board Member Mark H Durkan MLA has said that many questions remain unanswered following the breach.  

Durkan said that the emergency meeting was “one step of the many” needed to address “the alarm caused” and to rebuild confidence in the PSNI.

“Some questions have been answered but many others remain unanswered or have not been addressed satisfactorily. In particular, while the Senior Management Team have outlined the systems they have in place to protect sensitive information and the human errors that led to this release, we have yet to hear why exactly this FOI request was answered within three working days of being submitted,” he said.

“I have never seen as quick a response from any agency to any FOI request, never mind one that has the potential to make public very sensitive information. 

“The release of personal data is so huge and so hugely damaging that there must accountability both organisationally and individually.”

He added that the SDLP is “ruling nothing out”.

“The unimaginable stress of these families is compounded by a claim from a paramilitary organisation that they have access to the leaked information.

“At this time of deep anxiety there must be immediate action to assess and reduce risk. It is against this that the PSNI leadership should be judged.”

Officer safety

The Police Federation for Northern Ireland (PFNI), which represents rank and file officers, said they have been inundated with calls from worried officers.

Police in the region are under threat from terrorists, with the current assessed level of threat at severe, meaning an attack is highly likely.

In February, senior detective John Caldwell was seriously injured when he was shot by gunmen at a sports complex in Co Tyrone.

Earlier this year, Byrne said he receives briefings almost every day about plots to attack and kill his officers, adding that the ongoing threat from dissident republicans remains a “real worry”.

Policing Board member and UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt said that PSNI officers from a Catholic or nationalist background were most concerned about the force’s data breach.

“I’m very concerned and, more importantly, I think the police family are very concerned. They’re stunned, they’re angry, they’re even questioning the future,” the Ulster Unionist Party MLA told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning. 

He said he had heard most from officers from a Catholic or nationalist background, some of whom keep their job a secret even from family members.

“They’re saying ‘we’re making sacrifices, we knew the risks, but we don’t deserve this to have our personal information in the public domain and we don’t know where that ends up’.”

Linda Dillon, Sinn Féin MLA and Policing Board member told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland today that that they cannot accept it was a case of simple human error “until we get all the answers, until we get a proper understanding of what happened”. 

“This is much too early to accept that anything was the case until we know exactly what happened, how it happened, and why there weren’t checks and balances in place to make sure that human error was minimised,” she said. 

Dillion said she is “absolutely” concerned that some officers will leave the force because of the breach.

She said she is not just concerned for those who are already in the PSNI, but also about the potential impact the breach will have on any future recruitment exercises. 

“I think we need to remind ourselves that the information is out there. Even if an officer or staff member was to resign now, the people who have their information will not know about that resignation,” she said. 

Chief Constable Byrne said this afternoon that no police officers have been moved from their home.

“One of the things we’ve done under the leadership is establish a group to look at real-time concerns about threat and risk,” he said. 

“We’ve had over 500 referrals to that service, which is real-time triaging the level of risk that we perceive officers to be facing and then we’re offering them that advice,” Byrne added. 

“We have not yet redeployed anybody, for example, from their home, we’re taking steps this afternoon to reassess in some cases, which I won’t go into for operational reasons, whether we need to redeploy some specialist officers away from the usual place of work to a new location.”

Byrne also told reporters the PSNI may be liable to “financial penalty” for the data breach.

“We have to make some assumptions that we are liable to financial penalty either from the regulator or from officers making a claim about the breach of their personal data but to try and speculate yet is too early,” he said. 

Byrne said he will not be stepping down from his position as Chief Constable. 

“In terms of my own position, firstly in the short term my priority is about the wellbeing of officers and staff as we navigate our way through this crisis,” he said. 

“But equally I know it’s a question that people will be asking, I don’t think leadership is about walking away, it’s facing up to your responsibilities and I think the organisation needs consistency and calm heads at the moment across the team to lead us through what we accept is an unprecedented crisis.”

Asked if members of the Policing Board mentioned him resigning, Byrne replied: “No, they didn’t.”

Stolen laptop

Yesterday, it also emerged that the theft of documents, including a spreadsheet containing the names of more than 200 serving officers and staff, and a police issue laptop and radio, from a car in Newtownabbey in July, is also being investigated.

Assistant Chief Constable Chris Todd said they have contacted the officers and staff concerned to make them aware of the incident and an initial notification has been made to the office of the Information Commissioner regarding the data breach.

Byrne said today that the laptop and documents stolen from the car has not yet been recovered. 

“We haven’t recovered the stolen property, I know there is speculation about how and why it may have been stolen but we’re in now an investigation which is in its early stages, and we can’t confirm much else,” he said.

He said they have means of wiping devices remotely, and laptops are protected by password.

“So we’re quite confident that any information on those devices will not be accessible by a third party,” Byrne said.

Includes reporting by Press Association

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