A mass leak of police information in Northern Ireland has been connected to two suspects, who have been brought in for questioning in Belfast. The leak occurred when a sensitive document was mistakenly shared in connection to a freedom of information request, and takes place amidst a backdrop of increased tensions and fears of terrorism that have been growing since early 2023.
The incident comes in the wake of the theft of a laptop, radio and potentially sensitive documents from a patrol car on July 6. A resurgent IRA splinter faction has ambushed police in recent months, and the terrorist threat level has been elevated to the “severe” level.
Data leak feeds ongoing concerns about attacks on police
The request resulted in a document being posted to the open internet on August 8 that revealed identifying information for current and former members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI): first initials with surnames, rank or grade, the unit they are employed in and their work location. The data leak was available for about three hours before being taken down, but parts of it have since been seen posted to a wall near the Sinn Féin office in Belfast alongside a threatening message and a picture of Catholic Police Guild chairman Gerry Kelly.
The first suspect is a 39 year old who was reportedly arrested in the town of Lurgan and had his home searched. The PSNI has not yet made clear if the suspect is involved with the request or with suspected terror groups, but did say that the data leak was the result of the mistaken inclusion of a source file with unclassified information and that they believed the information had been obtained by dissident republicans. The second arrest was made in Dungiven, and police said the subject is a 50 year old man who was taken in under the Terrorism Act.
The PSNI has been having a rough stretch in terms of data leaks, as potential threat actors appear to be testing the organization’s security. The July 6 car theft involved materials stolen from a superintendent, and is thought to potentially impact about 200 police officers and staff members. The theft was exacerbated by the fact that these employees were not notified of the potential risk to them for about a month, though the PSNI says that the stolen laptop and radio were quickly deactivated and that there is no indication that sensitive data was taken from them.
The data leaks ended up exposing a total of 40 PSNI officers working in counter-terrorism.
Some of these officers were outed as working with MI5 (by having its Northern Ireland headquarters listed as their place of employment), and may be called to testify in a scheduled terror trial centered on the actions of undercover agent Dennis McFadden. McFadden infiltrated the high command of the New IRA, the group responsible for recent terror attacks, over an eight-year period and ended up providing evidence for terrorism charges against 10 people. The trial had not been expected to commence for over a year, but is likely to be delayed even further due to the data leak.
Breach could have devastating effect on police operations
Some have characterized the data leak as the worst ever suffered in the country, given that it provides terrorists with highly secret information that is directly useful to their campaigns. It is not just spies and counter-terrorism agents that routinely keep their identities secret for fear of reprisal, but also specialized PSNI anti-riot teams that mask their faces while deployed. Officers may also have added layers of protection and anonymity based on their faith and personal backgrounds.
Most of the IRA has continued to honor a 1997 ceasefire pledge, but there are small splinter groups that continue to focus on attacking police. In February, two gunmen believed to be associated with the New IRA ambushed Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell after a youth football game and caused serious injury in a failed assassination attempt. Some of these splinter groups have declared that the families of PSNI officers are also “legitimate” targets of terrorist attacks in their eyes.
As a result of the data leak, PSNI officers and employees are being told to increase their vigilance at all times and alter their daily routes and routines. The force is reportedly struggling to triage and contact impacted officers, and about 3,000 have expressed interest in bringing a legal case for damages, something that could run into the tens of millions of pounds if successful. There have also been some media reports of officers quitting the force over the threat to their safety, though PSNI insists that it is not seeing resignations as of yet.