UK data breach puts hundreds of Afghan interpreters ‘at risk’

Error exposes email addresses of more than 250 people who worked with British forces, officials in Afghanistan.

The UK has acknowledged it left behind hundreds of Afghans eligible for relocation amid rushed mass evacuation efforts following the Taliban's takeover [File: LPhot Ben Shread/UK MOD Crown copyright 2021/Handout via Reuters]

The email addresses of hundreds of Afghan interpreters who worked with British forces, including some who are hiding from the Taliban in the war-torn country, have been shared in a data breach by the British Ministry of Defence.

The United Kingdom’s government has launched an investigation into the breach, which saw more than 250 people copied into an email by the Ministry of Defence pledging assistance with their relocation to the UK, making their details visible to all recipients.

One interpreter contacted by the ministry told the BBC the mistake “could cost the life of interpreters, especially for those who are still in Afghanistan”.

“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 interpreter told the broadcaster.

Some of the addresses showed individuals’ names and associated profile pictures.

The ministry’s email reportedly told the interpreters it was doing everything it could to help them reach the UK, but warned they should not risk leaving their current location if it was unsafe to do so.

The department reportedly sent another message 30 minutes later advising the recipients to change their email addresses following the error.

‘Unacceptable breach’

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace on Tuesday branded the error by the defence ministry’s Afghan Relocations Assistance Policy (ARAP) team “unacceptable”.

“I apologise to those Afghans affected by this data breach and with whom we are now working … to provide security advice,” he told Parliament.

Wallace said one official had been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation into the incident, which he said had affected about 260 individuals still inside Afghanistan.

“Processes for data handling and correspondence processing have already been changed,” he added.

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson told Al Jazeera: “We apologise to everyone impacted by this breach and are working hard to ensure it does not happen again.”

But former defence minister Johnny Mercer accused the department of a “criminally negligent performance” and said its mistake was going “to have a profound impact on people who are still in the country”.

“[The] Vast majority have been left behind, probably moving house again tonight,” he tweeted.

Hundreds left behind

John Healey, shadow defence secretary for the main opposition Labour Party, also denounced the defence ministry’s mistake.

“We told the Afghans who helped our British forces that we would keep them safe, but this data breach has needlessly put lives at risk,” he tweeted.

“Ministers must now urgently step up efforts to get these Afghans safely to the UK.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this month said 311 people who were eligible for resettlement in the UK under the ARAP scheme, such as interpreters who worked for British forces, had been left behind in Afghanistan.

“We will do everything we can to ensure that those people get the safe passage that they deserve,” he told Parliament.

The UK airlifted more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan during a chaotic scramble to evacuate people via Kabul’s international airport following the Taliban’s seizure of the capital on August 15. Those evacuated included UK nationals and Afghans.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies