NI Chief Constable cuts short family holiday to answer questions on data breach

Simon Byrne will appear before a meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board in Belfast on Thursday.

Rebecca Black
Wednesday 09 August 2023 18:31 BST
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable Simon Byrne (Liam McBurney/PA)
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable Simon Byrne (Liam McBurney/PA) (PA Wire)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

Northern Ireland’s Chief Constable Simon Byrne is to cut short a family holiday to face questions over a significant data breach.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) apologised on Tuesday after it emerged that some 10,000 officers and staff were affected.

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.

A representative body for officers said they have been left “shocked, dismayed and basically angry” by the breach.

On Wednesday, the PSNI said that it was investigating the theft of documents on July 6, including a spreadsheet containing the names of more than 200 serving officers and staff.

“We 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,” the PSNI said.

Assistant Chief Constable Chris Todd, senior information risk owner for the PSNI, confirmed that Mr Byrne is returning from leave over the breach of officers’ and staff’s data.

Mr Byrne is set to answer questions at an emergency meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board on Thursday morning.

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris said he spoke to Mr Byrne on Wednesday morning about the breach.

“I continue to be kept abreast of developments in relation to this very serious matter,” he said.

Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said questions need to be answered and she called for accountability.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he expects to speak to Mr Byrne later, and urged the leadership of the PSNI to “take the steps that are necessary, not only to reassure their officers and staff, but to also ensure that they are adequately protected”.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar described the data breach as a “matter of real concern” during a visit to Belfast on Wednesday.

He said the Irish State has not had any requests for support from the PSNI or Northern Ireland in relation to the breach, but said the Government would “respond favourably” if that did happen.

In a statement on Wednesday, Mr Todd said the investigation into the circumstances around the data breach is ongoing.

“As a service we are acutely aware of the seriousness of this breach and have declared it to be a critical incident,” he said.

“We fully understand the very real concerns being felt by our colleagues and their families and we are working hard to do everything we can to mitigate any risk.

“We are working with our security partners and organisations to investigate this incident.”

This is an extremely serious situation

ACC Chris Todd

Mr Todd said updated personal security advice has been issued to officers and staff and an emergency threat assessment group “to look at the welfare concerns of our people” has been established.

“We have also sought the assistance of an independent adviser to conduct an end to end review of our processes in order to understand what happened, how it happened and what we can do immediately to prevent such a breach happening in the future,” he said.

“This is an extremely serious situation.

“The Chief Constable is cutting his family holiday short and returning to Northern Ireland to attend tomorrow’s special sitting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board. We will continue to keep the Information Commissioner’s Office updated as the investigation continues.”

Earlier, Liam Kelly, chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland which represents rank and file officers, said he has been “inundated” with messages from officers who are “shocked, dismayed and basically angry”.

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, 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”.

Mr Kelly told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that, since news of the data breach emerged, he has been “personally inundated with officers who are outlining that they are shocked, dismayed and basically angry that this has happened”.

“Our officers go to great lengths to protect their identities. Some of them don’t even tell their close friends and associates that they are actually in the police,” he said.

He added: “Certainly, in my 29 years of the police, I’ve never experienced something like this, and quite rightly the PSNI have declared this matter as a critical incident and have reported it to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

“What my members and myself clearly need to hear from the PSNI is the steps that they intend to take to support not only our officers but their families.”

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