Northern Ireland dissident republicans claim to have leaked police data as officers still to be redeployed

10 August 2023, 18:10 | Updated: 10 August 2023, 18:14

Mr Byrne said he was "deeply sorry" about an "industrial scale breach of data".
Mr Byrne said he was "deeply sorry" about an "industrial scale breach of data". Picture: Alamy

By Emma Soteriou

Dissident republicans have claimed to be in possession of information circulating on WhatsApp following a data blunder in the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

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Hundreds of police officers have since voiced fears for their safety following the data breach, which affected around 10,000 officers and staff.

Speaking following an emergency meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board on Thursday, Northern Ireland's Chief Constable Simon Byrne said he was "deeply sorry" about the "industrial scale breach of data".

"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," he said.

"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."

He added that the force has not yet been able to verify the substance of the claim and the priority "has to be remaining alert to the safety and welfare of both officers and staff as we deal with this unprecedented incident".

Read more: Northern Ireland police investigate second data breach after document containing officer details is stolen

Read more: 'Critical incident' declared by Northern Ireland police after the names of 10,000 officers and staff published online

Mr Byrne was questioned for several hours by Policing Board members.

Speaking after the meeting, the board chair Deirdre Toner described the situation as "a very grave matter".

She said it "will remain the focal point for board meetings with PSNI for many months to come until we are reassured that the recommendations from the review are fully implemented".

Up to 40 officers at MI5's headquarters in Co Down are among the names involved in the blunder earlier this week, with moves understood to be under way to ensure their protection.

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 the 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.

It comes after details of another breach following the theft of documents and a laptop from a car in Newtownabbey in July emerged on Wednesday.

PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne says "dissident republicans" may have breached data

The Police Federation for Northern Ireland (PFNI), which represents rank-and-file officers, said on Wednesday that they had been inundated with calls from worried officers following the blunder.

But Mr Byrne said no police officers have been moved from their home.

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.

Speaking after the meeting, Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt, who sits on the Policing Board, said he hopes the dissident republican claim to have the information is false.

"Clearly it is in the interests of dissident republicans to make the claim because it's in their interests to spread maximum panic, but if they do have it then the police are, I would suggest, going to be well stretched to protect that number of people," he said.

Mr Nesbitt said Mr Byrne's position was not discussed at the meeting.

"I'm not going to give a kneejerk reaction to it, and my focus is on the security and the safety of the men and women of the police service and of the service team, and I think Simon is genuine about doing all he can to deal with their safety and security," he said.