UK defence ministry apologises for data breach endangering Afghan interpreter lives

UK defence ministry apologises for data breach endangering Afghan interpreter lives
3 min read
21 September, 2021
An email containing Afghan interpreters’ sensitive information was mistakenly copied to more than 250 participants in what UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace described as an 'unacceptable breach'.
Around 7000 Afghans who worked with British forces were evacuated following the Taliban's takeover, however thousands remain at risk [Getty]

The UK ministry of defence has apologised for a data breach that put the lives of more than 250 Afghan interpreters who served British forces in Afghanistan at serious risk. 

The breach was caused by an email, sent by the MoD, asking for an update from current and former UK staff who remain in Afghanistan or have fled to a third country after the Taliban seized control of Kabul. 

The email revealed the sensitive details of interpreters to all recipients, sharing people's names and some profile pictures. 

"This mistake could cost the life of interpreters, especially for those who are still in Afghanistan," said one interpreter, who received the email and realised that more than 250 other Afghans have been copied in. 

"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," they told the BBC

There are reports that the Taliban are going door-to-door looking for “foreign collaborators", according to a former Afghan defence minister and journalist last week. This is despite their previous announcement of a nationwide amnesty. 

Half-an-hour after the original email, the MoD sent a second email, titled "Urgent Arap case contact", asking recipients to delete the first message and warning that their data was compromised. 

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UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the leak was "unacceptable" and called for an investigation into the incident.

"We apologise to everyone impacted by this breach and are working hard to ensure it does not happen again," said an MoD spokeswoman. 

Former British Army officer and Conservative politician  Johnny Mercer called the breach an act of criminal negligence, adding: "I reiterate - [the] vast majority have been left behind, probably moving house again tonight." 

Around 7,000 Afghans who supported the UK defence mission in Afghanistan have been relocated to the UK under the government’s Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP) - designed to help current and former staff  "under serious threat to life". 

About 60,000 applications for relocation were received from the scheme's launch in April to 31 August. 

The vast majority - 52,350 - were rejected, Conservative minister James Heappey said on 17 September. 

This leaves thousands of interpreters at risk of a Taliban attack, many of whom are now in hiding or on the run, sometimes with young family members. 

"First this Govt’s racist hostile environment policy leave thousands of Afghans to rot. Then on its watch they give them away to the Taliban. The utter despicable, rotten, shame of it all," wrote Labour MP Clive Lewis on Twitter. 

This is the second information breach for the MoD so far this year. 

In January 2021, classified MoD documents containing information about the British military were found at a bus stop in Kent. An investigation was launched into the incident. 

The BBC speculated that as with the first incident, this second breach was due to human error.