- Details of 265 people compromised in email data breaches weeks after Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 2021
- Egregious breach “let down those to whom our country owes so much” – UK Information Commissioner
- Email error could have resulted in a threat to life
The 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.
“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. 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.”
- John Edwards, Information Commissioner
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.”
Taking into consideration the representations from the MoD, the fine was reduced from a starting amount of £1,000,000 to £700,000 to reflect the action the MoD took following the incidents and recognising the significant challenges the ARAP team faced. Under the ICO's public sector approach, the fine was further reduced to £350,000. This fine serves as a deterrent to data breaches, ensuring that both the MoD and other organisations have appropriate policies and training in place to minimise the risks of people’s information being inappropriately disclosed via email.
Details of the infringement
The ICO found that the MoD infringed the UK General Data Protection Regulation (UK GDPR), between August and September 2021, by failing to have appropriate technical and organisational measures in place. This failure left the security of personal information processed by the ARAP team at significant risk, in particular by way of disclosure through human error.
In addition to the 20 September 2021 incident, the MoD’s internal investigation found two other similar data breaches, including on 7 September 2021 involving 13 individual email addresses, and on 13 September 2021 involving 55 individual email addresses – both using the ‘To’ field. In some instances, the same email address was involved and so the total number of unique email addresses disclosed was 265.
The ICO investigation found that, at the time of the infringement, the MoD did not have operating procedures in place for the ARAP team to ensure group emails were sent securely to Afghan nationals seeking relocation. Staff joining the ARAP team had to rely on the MoD’s broader email policy and were not given specific guidance about the security risks of sending group emails when communicating sensitive information.
Notes to editors
- The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) upholds information rights in the public interest, promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals.
- The ICO has specific responsibilities set out in the Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA 2018), the UK General Data Protection Regulation (UK GDPR), the Freedom of Information Act 2000, Environmental Information Regulations 2004, and Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003.
- Since 25 May 2018, the ICO has the power to impose fines on data controllers of up to £17.5 million or (if the controller is an undertaking) 4% of global turnover.
- This fine was issued under the DPA 2018 for an infringement of the UK GDPR. The ICO’s decision will be published on our website in due course.
- Any fine is paid into the Consolidated Fund, which is the Government’s general bank account at the Bank of England, and is not kept by the ICO. However, the ICO is able to retain a specified amount of such fines each financial year to cover enforcement and litigation costs. The approach we take is audited by the National Audit Office. See How we are funded for more information.
- To report a concern to the ICO telephone our helpline 0303 123 1113 or go to ico.org.uk/concerns.