Afghanistan: Defence secretary angered over data breach

    Image credit: NewsChain

    Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has said it would be an understatement to say he was angered by a data breach involving the email addresses of dozens of Afghan interpreters who worked for UK forces.

    More than 250 people seeking relocation to the UK – many of whom are in hiding – were mistakenly copied into an email.

    Mr Wallace has apologised to them, and launched an investigation. One person has been suspended, he said.

    The MoD has also referred itself to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

    Speaking in the Commons, Mr Wallace said: “I apologise to those Afghans affected by this data breach and with Home (the Home Office) we are now working with them to provide security advice.

    “It is an unacceptable level of service that has let down the thousands of members of the armed forces and veterans. On behalf of the Ministry of Defence, I apologise.”

    He added that armed forces minister James Heappey was in the region speaking to neighbouring states to see what more could be done with third countries and in-country applicants.

    • Life under Taliban rule one month on
    • Veteran’s joy at seeing Afghan interpreter in UK
    • Stay home, female Kabul government workers told

    The email was sent to interpreters who remain in Afghanistan or have been able to get to other countries.

    Their email addresses could be seen by all recipients, showing people’s names and some associated profile pictures.

    Earlier the Information Commissioner (ICO) said it had contacted the department to make enquiries.

    A spokesperson for the ICO said: “People rightly expect that their personal information will be handled securely especially in circumstances where its loss could have devastating consequences, including possible threat to life.”

    Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the defence select committee, warned that the Taliban had not changed.

    “We must get these interpreters out or they’ll be hunted and killed,” he told MPs, and suggested using “clandestine means” to get them to safety, if usual methods were unavailable.

    “All means will be explored,” Mr Wallace replied.

    The email was sent by the team in charge of the UK’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap), which has been in contact with them since the Taliban took control of the country last month.

    The team told the interpreters it was doing everything it could to help relocate them.

    It also said they should not put themselves or their families at risk if it was not safe for them to leave their current location.

    But one interpreter who received the email realised that more than 250 Afghans who worked with British forces had been copied into the email.

    “This mistake could cost the life of interpreters, especially for those who are still in Afghanistan,” they told the BBC.

    “Some of the interpreters didn’t notice the mistake and they replied to all the emails already and they explained their situation which is very dangerous. The email contains their profile pictures and contact details.”

    The MoD then sent another email 30 minutes later with the title “Urgent – Arap case contact” asking the recipients to delete the previous email and warning “your email address may have been compromised”.

    It recommended the interpreters change their email addresses.

    Mr Wallace said the Ministry of Defence believed there were 900 “credible cases” for Arap resettlement still in Afghanistan beyond the 311 the government is currently speaking to.

    Labour shadow defence secretary John Healey welcomed the defence secretary’s apology but told the Commons that action now mattered most.

    He told MPs: “These Afghan interpreters worked alongside our British forces and the government rightly pledged to protect them. Ministers must make good on those promises now.”

    After the BBC approached the Ministry of Defence, the defence secretary was angry enough to order an immediate inquiry.

    It’s likely this data breach was just human error, and the apology is certainly sincere, but there are obviously concerns if the email addresses, names and pictures fall into the wrong hands.

    While the military evacuation on the ground was rightly lauded, the failure to get all those who worked with British forces out has left hundreds stranded and in hiding.

    Just this week we spoke to the family of an eight-month-old British baby who is still stuck there, an interpreter who is on the run fearing for his life, and another interpreter who just does not know what to do.

    This data breach just compounds their safety concerns.