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UK Probing ‘Unacceptable’ Data Breach as MoD Shared Over 250 Afghan Interpreters' Details in Email

© REUTERS / Ben Shread/UK MOD Crown copyright 2021/HandoutMembers of the UK Armed Forces continue to take part in the evacuation of entitled personnel from Kabul airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan August 19-22, 2021, in this handout picture obtained by Reuters on August 23, 2021. LPhot Ben Shread/UK MOD Crown copyright 2021/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
Members of the UK Armed Forces continue to take part in the evacuation of entitled personnel from Kabul airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan August 19-22, 2021, in this handout picture obtained by Reuters on August 23, 2021. LPhot Ben Shread/UK MOD Crown copyright 2021/Handout via REUTERS  THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. - Sputnik International, 1920, 21.09.2021
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The email had been sent out to Afghan interpreters who worked with British forces when they were stationed in the South Asian country now ruled by Taliban*. Some of them had managed to escape to other countries, while others remain in hiding.
UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has ordered an immediate inquiry into what has been slammed as an “unacceptable data breach” that "needlessly put lives at risk," reported the BBC.
The email addresses, names and some profile pictures of around 250 Afghans seeking relocation to the UK after the exit of NATO forces from the country were mistakenly copied into an email from the Ministry of Defence.
© REUTERS / Ben Shread/RAF/UK Ministry of DeBritish Forces from 16 Air Assault Brigade arrive in Kabul, Afghanistan, to provide support to British nationals leaving the country, as part of Operation PITTING after Taliban insurgents took control of the presidential palace in Kabul, August 15, 2021. Leading Hand Ben Shread/RAF/UK Ministry of Defence 2021/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.
British Forces from 16 Air Assault Brigade arrive in Kabul, Afghanistan, to provide support to British nationals leaving the country, as part of Operation PITTING after Taliban insurgents took control of the presidential palace in Kabul, August 15, 2021. Leading Hand Ben Shread/RAF/UK Ministry of Defence 2021/Handout via REUTERS   THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. - Sputnik International, 1920, 21.09.2021
British Forces from 16 Air Assault Brigade arrive in Kabul, Afghanistan, to provide support to British nationals leaving the country, as part of Operation PITTING after Taliban insurgents took control of the presidential palace in Kabul, August 15, 2021. Leading Hand Ben Shread/RAF/UK Ministry of Defence 2021/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.
The email was sent by a team overseeing the work of the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) to former interpreters who worked with British forces and have either fled to other countries, or have been left behind after evacuations from Kabul airport ended.
The UK had launched ARAP in 2021, under which any current or former Locally Employed Staff (LES) directly employed by Her Majesty's Government (HMG) in Afghanistan assessed to be at serious risk of threat to life will be eligible to apply regardless of their employment status, rank or role, or length of time served.
© REUTERS / STRINGERFormer Afghan interpreters, who worked with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, demonstrate in front of the U.S. embassy in Kabul June 25, 2021.
Former Afghan interpreters, who worked with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, demonstrate in front of the U.S. embassy in Kabul June 25, 2021. - Sputnik International, 1920, 21.09.2021
Former Afghan interpreters, who worked with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, demonstrate in front of the U.S. embassy in Kabul June 25, 2021.
Interpreters were told by the team that efforts were underway to help relocate them to safety, and warned against putting themselves or their families at risk.
However, one of the interpreters reportedly became aware that more than 250 Afghans formerly employed by British forces had been copied into the email, allowing their email addresses to be seen by all recipients.
"This 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 email contains their profile pictures and contact details," the team was cited by the outlet as saying.
Once alerted to the error, the MoD followed up its first email with another one, under the title "Urgent - Arap case contact", requesting that all recipients delete the previous email.
It issued a warning that the recipient’s email addresses “may have been compromised" and recommended they be changed.
The MoD has apologised in a statement, with a spokeswoman saying that an investigation had been launched into what Defence Secretary Ben Wallace called an "unacceptable breach".
"We apologise to everyone impacted by this breach and are working hard to ensure it does not happen again," she said, adding that the MoD "takes its information and data handling responsibilities very seriously".
The data breach that was likely a human error, has fed into concerns for the lives of those who were either employed by western forces in Afghanistan or served alongside them.
Failure to evacuate and relocate all these vulnerable Afghans after the airlift ended has left hundreds stranded and forced to go into hiding, fearing retribution from the Taliban Islamist group.
© REUTERS / HANDOUTMembers of the UK Armed Forces rest as they continue to take part in the evacuation of entitled personnel from Kabul airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan August 19-22, 2021, in this handout picture obtained by Reuters on August 23, 2021
Members of the UK Armed Forces rest as they continue to take part in the evacuation of entitled personnel from Kabul airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan August 19-22, 2021, in this handout picture obtained by Reuters on August 23, 2021 - Sputnik International, 1920, 21.09.2021
Members of the UK Armed Forces rest as they continue to take part in the evacuation of entitled personnel from Kabul airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan August 19-22, 2021, in this handout picture obtained by Reuters on August 23, 2021
Tobias Ellwood MP, Chair of the Defence Select Committee in the House of Commons, welcomed the investigation into the data breach. However, he was cited as underscoring the urgency of helping the interpreters out of the country.
"Each day they remain in the country the risk of them not making it out increases," he said.
Conservative MP and former defence minister Johnny Mercer said the treatment of the interpreters had been "deeply shameful" and that many would be "moving house again tonight" in light of the data breach.
Labour shadow defence secretary John Healey deplored the incident that had "needlessly put lives at risk".
A Ministry of Defence official was cited by the BBC as saying:
"During Operation Pitting we worked tirelessly to safely evacuate as many people out of Afghanistan as possible, airlifting more than 15,000 people from Kabul including thousands of Arap [Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy] applicants and their dependents. We will continue to do all we can to support those who have supported us, and our commitment to those who are eligible for relocation is not time-limited and will endure.”
Operation Pitting was launched to evacuate British nationals and eligible Afghans from Afghanistan after the Taliban swept to power in the wake of the abrupt US and NATO withdrawal from the country. Involving over 1,000 military personnel it airlifted to the UK some 15,000 people on more than 100 flights. Around 5,000 of them were British nationals and 8,000 were vulnerable Afghans deemed at risk from Taliban retaliation. The operation effectively wrapped up the UK's 20-year military campaign in Afghanistan.
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