9 August 2023

For Northern Ireland’s brave police force, this data breach is a colossal failure


Northern Ireland is a small place. It’s even smaller if you’re one of the 6,625 men and women who police its semi-skimmed peace. Keeping law and order while living and working in a place not much bigger than Yorkshire, and still under a severe terrorist threat, is a risky occupation.  

That risk has been hugely magnified by yesterday’s catastrophic data protection blunder by their employers, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Responding to a Freedom of Information Act Request, the organisation accidentally released the personal details of all officers, along with 2,427 civilian support staff. This data breach included the surname, initials, place of work and departments of all staff. 

Readers unfamiliar with Northern Ireland may be forgiven for asking ‘so what?’ about information that they might assume was easily and legitimately available anyway. After all, we have been told by the embarrassed PSNI leadership that no personal addresses were disclosed.

But in this part of the UK, police officers face an enduring and unique threat from a terrorist gang that is desperate to maintain its relevance by murdering them. Dissident republican terrorists who reject Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace agreement have tried repeatedly to kill police officers and in some cases have unfortunately succeeded.

They are undeterred by general revulsion across the community for their tactics and objectives. This nihilistic bunch of death cult fantasists, comprising irredentist former IRA extremists and the younger fanatics they have groomed, have not stopped targeting officers. They are the main suspects in the attempted murder of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell, who was gunned down off duty in a leisure centre in front of terrified children in February of this year. 

The information that has leaked is likely to be of use to terrorists and other criminals in two ways.

Firstly, it identifies people, either officers or staff who have been repeatedly drilled by their own organisation to be discreet about their occupation, for fear that they might be made vulnerable to attack. PSNI officers are routinely armed because of the ongoing extremist threat and are allowed to carry their weapons off duty, because that is when they are most exposed. This discretion means that even close neighbours and acquaintances may not be aware that they are police officers or staff.

The force has made huge strides to attract young Catholic recruits to the PSNI, which was formed out of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 2001. Catholics had been put off joining the largely Protestant RUC for a range of reasons including perceived discrimination but they had also been deterred by a determined effort by the IRA to murder recruits who they perceived as ‘traitors’. Terrorists hate normality and normalised policing then as now is anathema to them. Those 26.4% of PSNI officers who are Catholic and born in the province often come from and live in areas where there is huge ideological hostility to the PSNI. Having taken the brave decision to help police the fragile peace in Northern Ireland for the good of the whole community, they must feel particularly angry and anxious this morning. 

The other related reason for outrage and fury of rank-and-file officers and staff is that they have now been identified as working in some of the most sensitive parts of policing Northern Ireland. That would include liaison with the security service, MI5, which has an enormous base outside Belfast. It identifies those involved in policing organised and paramilitary crime. This information would also be of use to the polycriminals – former terrorists turned narcotics entrepreneurs – who dominate the illicit drugs markets and blight working class Loyalist and Republican heartlands with their coercive control.

We have no way of knowing for sure whether this information has made its way into the hands of terrorists or other criminals who would use it to exert pressure or target individuals. We know it was accessible to anyone on the PSNI website for a number of hours before the blunder was detected and deleted. The possibility may never be quantified. But the threat extends everywhere in the organisation and terrorists will make use of that possibility even if not realised for propaganda purposes and psychological manipulation. During the Troubles, the IRA made a point of targeting police staff and related facilities such as the Province’s Forensic Science Laboratory that was destroyed by a bomb in 1992. Many police staff do not even have the benefit of being armed off duty. How must they be feeling?

What we do know from the PSNIs own crime statistics is the terrorist threat continues, albeit substantially reduced in scale. In the latest data to the end of 2021, people continue to be charged and convicted of the possession of documents or information likely to be of use to terrorists. Twenty people in that timescale were convicted of terrorist offences. In the words of Gerry Adams – a man familiar with the enduring, bloodthirsty capacity of republican extremists – ‘they haven’t gone away, you know.’

It’s worth noting that this information was sent in error to someone who had apparently made a legitimate request for information. Part of the change in culture, mandated by the reforms that brought the PSNI into being included the requirement of greater transparency. While this is a welcome development, it ought to have been a reasonable expectation of employees within the PSNI that sensitive personnel data was protected.

Indeed, the Freedom of information Act provides exemptions for the express purpose of protecting this sort of data from disclosure. While there is no suggestion that this request was nefarious, it is an obvious risk that bad actors will ask for information that might provide them with help in targeting individuals. A former PSNI source speculated to me that this was probably simple incompetence – an Excel spreadsheet where tabs of personal data that should not have been attached were left on. We will have to wait until the Information Commissioner concludes an investigation to know.

Meanwhile, in one of those bizarre twists of the peace process which we are all required to see as progress, the man who chairs the Statutory Policing Board’s Performance Committee will be taking a keen interest in developments. Sinn Fein MLA and convicted IRA terrorist Gerry Kelly will have unusual insight of the vulnerabilities of police officers and staff targeted for murder.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland is already on the horns of a twin dilemma. Swingeing budget cuts means it cannot raise the numbers of officers required to police the streets adequately or pay them comparable salaries to their counterparts 11 miles off the coast in Scotland. That in turn is accelerating rates of resignation from newly trained officers, straining service delivery still further. If those remaining cannot be protected by their own employer, we are in serious trouble.

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.