Dissident republicans claim to have PSNI officer data after breach

Dissident republicans claim to be in possession of information about PSNI officers after huge data breach that revealed their surnames and work locations

  • Chief Constable Simon Byrne ‘deeply sorry’ over ‘critical’ data breach
  • Surname, initials, rank, role and location of 10,000 officers and staff released
  • READ MORE:  Police working with MI5 ‘at risk’ after catastrophic NI data leak

Dissident republican activists in Northern Ireland claim to have information on the identity of police officers revealed in a data breach.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland’s (PSNI) chief constable Simon Byrne said he was ‘deeply sorry’ over what he described as an ‘industrial scale breach of data’ that saw the surnames, initials and locations of 10,000 officers and staff released to the public on Tuesday.

Speaking at a press conference after a Northern Ireland Policing Board meeting that overran by more than two hours, Mr Byrne said he was not considering his position – the second time he has ruled out quitting in the last 24 hours. 

Mr Byrne said an ‘early worst-case scenario that we have been dealing with is that third parties would attempt to get this data’ – and that dissident republican groups claim to have obtained the data after it was circulated on messaging platform WhatsApp.

Officers are working ‘flat out’ to get answers to the ‘questions that are on everybody’s lips’ Mr Byrne said.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) chief constable Simon Byrne, addressing reporters on Thursday following a mass data breach. The names and locations of thousands of officers and staff were exposed in a freedom of information response

The surnames, initials, ranks, roles and locations of some 10,000 PSNI officers and staff were visible to the public for between two and a half and three hours

Mr 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’.

He told the media: ‘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.

‘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.

‘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.’

No police officers have been moved from their home following the mass breach, Mr Byrne added. 

He continued: ‘One of the things we’ve done under the leadership is establish a group to look at real-time concerns about threat and risk.

‘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.

‘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.’

Mr Byrne – pictured here on a walkabout last month – says he is ‘deeply sorry’ over the mass data breach. He has admitted that the details may be circulating online

Mr Byrne said action had been taken to reassure officers of their safety. However, dissident republican groups claim to have obtained copies of the data after it was released

He admitted that the force may face ‘financial penalties’ for the data breach – either in the form of fines from regulators, or from officers making claims against the service, but added: ‘To try and speculate yet is too early.’

When asked about his position, Mr Byrne said leadership was ‘not about walking away’, adding that steps had already been taken to prevent a repeat of the breach.

He said: ‘For what we understand has caused the breach we have taken immediate steps to remedy that, so in effect in future nothing else will be issued on a spreadsheet, it will go in a PDF format so that it can’t link to another part of information.

READ MORE: PSNI declares ‘critical incident’ after 10,000 staff names including undercover officers are published online as families say the major error has left them ‘living in fear’

‘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.

‘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, Mr Byrne replied: ‘No, they didn’t.’

Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly, who sits on the Northern Ireland Policing Board, said the session with the police chief had been ‘instructive and very robust’.

‘There were many questions asked, we got answers to some of them,’ he said.

‘The issue around whether it is human error or a systems error was answered at the end. I think while human error was involved, there was also a problem with the system. I understand they changed part of the system which would resolve that problem at this moment.

‘We also talked about the welfare of police officers. This is 10,800 names, which is huge, it’s colossal, and there is an issue of taking care of those people.’

Mr Byrne cut short a family holiday to return to Belfast to be quizzed by politicians at an emergency meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board following the ‘critical’ data breach.

Information that could identify officers – potentially including those working undercover in dissident groups – was released in response to a freedom of information request seeking the number of officers across the organisation.

In the published response to the request a table was released which contained the rank and grade data requested – but it also accidentally included more detailed information that identified officers by their name, rank, role and location.

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

On Wednesday it 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. 

A press conference was held on Thursday after Mr Byrne faced a grilling from politicians on the Northern Ireland Policing Board. The meeting overran by more than two hours

The Police Service of Northern Ireland has since admitted another data breach occurred more than a month ago. A spreadsheet containing the names of 200 serving officers and staff, along with a police-issue laptop and radio, were lifted from a private car in Newtonabbey on July 6

On Tuesday Mr Todd apologised to officers and staff over that day’s data breach, which he said was being treated as a critical incident.

The items stolen in Newtonabbey have not been recovered, but Mr Byrne said on Thursday that he was confident the data was inaccessible.

The Chief Constable added: ‘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 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,’ Mr Byrne added.

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris spoke to Mr Byrne on Wednesday about the breach, which he described as a ‘very serious matter’.

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.

There are fears that dissident republican groups in Northern Ireland could use the data to identify undercover police officers among their ranks (pictured, masked members of a dissident republican group at a parade in April marking the 1916 Easter Rising insurrection)

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Chris Todd said that officers implicated in the second data breach had been contacted

The Police Federation of Northern Ireland has expressed concern over the welfare of officers implicated in the breach. In February, senior detective John Caldwell (pictured) was seriously injured when he was shot by gunmen at a sports complex in County Tyrone

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, Mr 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’.

Ahead of the meeting, which was set to start at 10am and last for two hours, Mr Byrne said he was not considering resigning over the significant data breach.

Pressed by the Financial Times on whether he was intending to quit, he said: ‘No, I am not.’

PFNI chairman Liam Kelly said there is a need for credible explanations following the breaches.

‘This confirmation by the service makes matters worse,’ he said of the theft of the documents and laptop.

‘Urgent answers are required. How did this happen? What steps were put in place to advise and safeguard so many colleagues?

‘The major security breach was bad enough, but this heaps further additional pressure on the PSNI to produce credible explanations around data security protocols and the impact on officer safety.

‘Speed is of the essence. This cannot be dragged out as officers of all ranks throughout the service are seeking reassurance and an effective action plan containing all necessary measures to counter the damage and minimise risk.

‘I have been inundated with calls from worried officers.

‘The Police Federation has had in-depth discussions already with the PSNI senior command and they fully accept and recognise the gravity of this situation and the depth of officer anger and concern.’

Source: Read Full Article