The UK Department of Defence has been embarrassed by a data breach containing the private data of Afghan interpreters. The email addresses of about 250 people wishing to come to the United Kingdom were visible in a group email. One employee has been suspended pending an investigation into the leak.
The ministry sent the mail to Afghans who worked for the British Armed Forces on Monday and are still in Afghanistan or other countries. Recipient email addresses and profile photos were shown by everyone who received the message.
A receiver reacted to the BBC in shock to the blunder. “This error can cost interpreters life. Especially when they‘re still in Afghanistan.” Some interpreters would not have realized that something was wrong either. “They emailed everyone back explaining the situation they are in. That’s very dangerous.”
The ministry would have quickly realised that a mistake had been made and emailed a warning after half an hour. The interpreters were asked to delete the first email and the message: “Your email address may be unsafe.” In addition to the suspension of an employee, measures have been taken to prevent a recurrence of the error.
Defence Minister Ben Wallace spoke of an “unacceptable mistake” in parliament and also apologized. “To say I‘m angry about this is an understatement. I ordered an investigation immediately.” Wallace also promised to keep doing his best to get people out of Afghanistan.
‘Unbelievably shameful ‘
The leak led to angry reactions in British politics. Ruling Conservative Party MP Johnny Mercer called the way interpreters are handled “incredibly embarrassing.” He concluded that many people are “going to find another place to stay tonight.”
John Healey of opposition Labour Party said that “unnecessarily lives have been compromised” by the data breach. He called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government to do more to transfer lagging interpreters to the United Kingdom.
Western countries have withdrawn their troops from Afghanistan after two decades this year. Last month, the extremist Taliban seized power. In addition to the UK, countries such as the Netherlands and the US have evacuated citizens and local former employees on a large scale, but were not able to get everyone away on time.