Northern Ireland

Second PSNI data breach as documents and laptop stolen from private car last month

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable Simon Byrne is cutting short a holiday to answer questions on the data breaches. Picture by Liam McBurney, PA
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable Simon Byrne is cutting short a holiday to answer questions on the data breaches. Picture by Liam McBurney, PA

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI ) is investigating a second data breach relating to the theft of documents, including a spreadsheet containing the names of more than 200 serving officers and staff, stolen from a private vehicle in Newtownabbey on July 6.

The revelation comes a day after the force had a significant data breach affecting 10,000 officers and staff.

Assistant Chief Constable Chris Todd said police are investigating the circumstances surrounding last month's theft.

“The documents, along with a police issue laptop and radio, were believed to have been stolen from a private vehicle in the Newtownabbey area on July 6,” he said.

“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.

“This is an issue we take extremely seriously and as our investigation continues we will keep the Northern Ireland Policing Board and the Information Commissioner’s Office updated.”

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Meanwhile, PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne is to cut short a family holiday to face questions over the breach.

The PSNI apologised yesterday after it emerged that the PSNI responded to a Freedom of Information request seeking the number of officers and staff of all ranks and grades across the organisation with additional, unrequested information.

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.

Read more:What to know about PSNI's ‘major data breach'

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

Assistant Chief Constable Chris Todd, senior information risk owner for the PSNI, confirmed that Mr Byrne is returning from leave over the matter.

Policing Board member Mike Nesbitt said PSNI officers from a Catholic or nationalist background were most concerned about the force’s data breach.

The Ulster Unionist Party MLA told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m very concerned and, more importantly, I think the police family are very concerned. They’re stunned, they’re angry, they’re even questioning the future.”

He said he had heard most from officers from a Catholic or nationalist background, some of whom keep their job a secret even from family members.

“They’re saying ‘we’re making sacrifices, we knew the risks, but we don’t deserve this to have our personal information in the public domain and we don’t know where that ends up’.”

PSNI data breach
Police Service of Northern Ireland Assistant Chief Constable Chris Todd (Rebecca Black/PA)

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

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.

Read more: What does the Sectetary of State for Northern Ireland do?

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

Stormont Assembly
Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill and MLA Conor Murphy speaking to the media in Belfast (Rebecca Black/PA)

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”.

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.”

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”.

Liam Kelly interview
Police Federation for Northern Ireland chairman Liam Kelly said he has been ‘inundated’ with messages from ‘shocked’ and ‘angry’ officers (Peter Morrison/PA)

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.”