The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has made arrests in a recent data leak involving sensitive internal information, but it is too late to repair the damage caused by the breach. Thousands of police officers, including some that work with MI5 on anti-terrorism cases, have had their names and work locations exposed and may be targeted by violence as a result.
Police have arrested two suspects in connection with the sharing of this information, but the data leak appears to have been caused by an internal mistake; an Excel document that was posted to the public under “freedom of information” rules was not stripped of a source file that contained private information for some 10,000 current and former employees and officers.
Police service faces potential massive lawsuit, loss of staff over unforced data leak
The data leak is incredibly damaging for something that was so unnecessary. Many PSNI officers have their identities kept secret throughout (and after) their careers to avoid terrorist retaliation. The most at-risk are those that work directly with MI5 at its North Ireland headquarters, some of whom may be involved in everyday operations, but there are also many rank-and-file officers and staff that are now in a great deal of added danger.
The danger comes from small splinter groups that have broken off from the main branch of the IRA and refuse to honor a ceasefire set in place in the late 1990s. The danger is illustrated by a recent attack on Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell, who was set upon after exiting a youth football game with his children and ended up being severely wounded in an assassination attempt.
Some officers are reportedly considering leaving the PSNI or even relocating to the UK mainland in the wake of the data leak, though the department says that it is not yet seeing resignations. Thousands have also reportedly made contact with lawyers about a potential suit against the department, something that could cost it a tremendous amount of money.
The total of damages could go well into the tens of millions of pounds if a court case is successful, combined with likely fines for negligence in handling sensitive personal data. The data leak illustrates the potentially massive cost of something as simple as not vetting an Excel file properly before making it public to the open internet.
Data leak provides terrorists with police last names & work locations
The leaked document was only available for about three hours on August 8 before it was noticed and taken down, but PSNI says that it believes the dissident republican groups that are prone to terrorist actions obtained it during that window. This appears to have been confirmed by a portion of the document subsequently being printed out and posted on a wall near the Sinn Fein office in Belfast, along with a threatening note.
It is unclear as to what level the two arrested suspects might be involved with the data leak, but one is a 39 year old man from Lurgan and the other is a 50 year old man from Dungiven. The older man was arrested under Terrorism Act charges. It is also not clear if either were involved with a prior breach involving the theft of a laptop and documents from a superintendent’s car on July 6.