Woman 'let down' after PSNI sent alleged rape details to charity in 'error'

A woman who recently reported a decades old rape allegation to the PSNI says she felt "let down" when she learned that some of the intimate details of her report were shared with a third party in "error".

The PSNI has confirmed that no data breach has been identified, because although this was an “error”, the police say the details were "simply exchanged between statutory agencies."

Leah, not her real name, says it took her years to muster up the courage to tell authorities about what she says happened to her as a child, and that initially, it was a "relief", albeit scary.

In December, she says she was contacted by the charity Victim Support, who wanted to know if there was any reason why they would have been sent some personal details about her allegations by the PSNI.

Those details included her full name, the date of the alleged incident, and a list of what crimes she says she has been a victim of.

"Just before the new year contact was made to me from Victim Support to say that they had received a police report with my personal details... and date of the incident and details of the incident and wanted to know did I have an idea why they would have received this, to which [I replied] I had no idea why,” she said.

"I had asked them to basically destroy the paperwork, but before they did that, the girl agreed to email me a copy of what was received," said Leah.

"They made me aware that they can represent people, but she knew from my record that they were not representing me, and I have never given permission for anything to be sent to them."

"So I received the email and straightaway I contacted the investigating officer via email and showed her what victims support received… and asked her why, as her name was signed at the bottom of the report."

She continued: "She wasn't able to offer any explanation as to why or how this could have happened, and she said that she would speak to her boss. 

"A week later, I received a phone call. No introduction other than, he just said that he was the investigating officers’ boss, and he believed that some of my personal data had been shared and he wanted to apologise, and to inform me that it was with the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) and that they may be in touch.

"And that's nearly two months ago now, and I haven't heard anything."

Chief Superintendent Sam Donaldson said: “We have been made aware of an incident where a page containing personal information was shared with a statutory partner agency in error in December 2023.”

The statement went on: “Our Information Security Unit conducted an assessment and reviewed the circumstances. After liaising with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), it was determined that this did not constitute a data breach and did not require formal notification to the ICO, particularly as the page had simply been exchanged between statutory agencies and was never in the public domain. 

“In the interest of transparency, officers made contact with the data subject and informed them of the matter.

“While the sharing of data between statutory agencies does not constitute a data breach, we take incidents of this nature extremely seriously and steps have been taken to ensure a similar incident doesn’t happen again.”

Meanwhile, Victim Support said they “do not talk about individual cases”.  

“However, we can state that Victim Support NI receive information from PSNI and other third-party agencies related to our clients,” a statement said.

 “This is legislated for in the Justice Act (2015).  

“On the rare occasion that we receive information in error, we follow our internal data protection processes, which include contacting the individual concerned, where we have contact details for them.”

The information in question wasn't a full file, but for former officer Jon Burrows, "it's bad enough as it is".

"I think it's disappointing in the extreme, principally for the victim," he said.

"These are very sensitive things, very intrusive information, on a crime that, as it stands, is underreported.

"And when you have someone who comes forward and gives that level of detail that it's very horrific for them to share with anybody.

"To find a third party has it, and is reading it without your consent, without it serving a particular purpose, because victims didn't need to see that at that stage."

This incident in December came months after a huge data breach which saw the PSNI accidentally publish the surnames and work locations of hundreds of staff.

This triggered an independent review, which found that the systems for data handling were out of date and not fit for purpose, and the PSNI committed to implement the recommendations.

The organisation has confirmed that what happened to Leah did not breach data rules, but said they do take such incidents “extremely seriously”.

Leah said: "My message to the police is …. you deal with people's details on a day and daily basis.

"And to you, they are just details, but it’s people's lives and people's private business that.

"Well, it certainly took a lot of strength to find the confidence to go with the police to begin with, to report the incident…. and I just feel let down."

Victim Support says the charity “would encourage victims of crime to report crimes to police as by doing so, there is at least a chance that the offender can be brought to justice."

“For more information on our services please go to Victim Support NI," they said.

 “If you are a victim of serious sexual violence, and you would like to speak to someone in confidence about what has happened to you, please contact the 24 hour Domestic & Sexual Abuse helpline on 0808 802 1414.”

More links are available here.

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