UK regulator fines Ministry of Defence for Afghan evacuation data breach

UK regulator fines Ministry of Defence for Afghan evacuation data breach

John Edwards

The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has fined the Ministry of Defence (MoD) £350,000 for disclosing personal information of people seeking relocation to the UK shortly after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 2021.

On 20 September 2021, the MoD sent an email to a distribution list of Afghan nationals eligible for evacuation using the ‘To’ field, with personal information relating to 245 people being inadvertently disclosed. The email addresses could be seen by all recipients, with 55 people having thumbnail pictures on their email profiles.

Two people ‘replied all’ to the entire list of recipients, with one of them providing their location.

The original email was sent by the team in charge of the UK’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP), which is responsible for assisting the relocation of Afghan citizens who worked for or with the UK government in Afghanistan. The data disclosed, should it have fallen into the hands of the Taliban, could have resulted in a threat to life.

Soon after the data breach, the MoD contacted the people affected asking them to delete the email, change their email address, and inform the ARAP team of their new contact details via a secure form.

The MoD also conducted an internal investigation, made a statement in Parliament about the data breach, and updated the ARAP’s email policies and processes, including implementing a ‘second pair of eyes’ policy for the ARAP team when sending emails to multiple external recipients. Such procedure provides a double check whereby an email instigated by one member of staff is cross checked by another.

Under data protection law, organisations must have appropriate technical and organisational measures in place to avoid disclosing people’s information inappropriately. ICO guidance makes it clear that organisations should use bulk email services, mail merge, or secure data transfer services when sending any sensitive personal information electronically.

The ARAP team did not have such measures in place at the time of the incident and was relying on ‘blind carbon copy’ (BCC), which carries a significant risk of human error.

John Edwards, UK information commissioner, said: “This deeply regrettable data breach let down those to whom our country owes so much. This was a particularly egregious breach of the obligation of security owed to these people, thus warranting the financial penalty my office imposes today.

“While the situation on the ground in the summer of 2021 was very challenging and decisions were being made at pace, that is no excuse for not protecting people’s information who were vulnerable to reprisal and at risk of serious harm. When the level of risk and harm to people heightens, so must the response.

“I welcome the MoD’s remedial steps taken and its collaboration with my office to ensure its bulk email policies and processes are improved so such errors are not repeated.

“By issuing this fine and sharing the lessons from this breach, I want to make clear to all organisations that there is no substitute for being prepared. Applying the highest standards of data protection is not an optional extra — it is a must, whatever the circumstances. As we have seen here, the consequences of data breaches could be life-threatening. My office will continue to act where we find poor compliance with the law that puts people at risk of harm.”

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “The Ministry of Defence takes its data protection obligations incredibly seriously. We have cooperated extensively with the ICO throughout their investigation to ensure a prompt resolution, and we recognise the severity of what has happened. We fully acknowledge today’s ruling and apologise to those affected.

“We have introduced a number of measures to act on the ICO’s recommendations and will share further details on these measures in due course.”

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