The Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon has announced she is to conduct an investigation into an alleged major data breach at Independent News & Media (INM).
She said she intends to undertake an investigation into whether personal data was accessed and if so, whether it was processed lawfully and fairly in accordance with data protection legislation.
“We are currently scoping the parameters of that investigation, including seeking additional information from INM this afternoon on foot of the breach notification it filed with the office last week”.
The breach is alleged to have occurred in 2014 and to have involved emails and other material being searched by third parties for mentions of “persons of interest”.
A number of 19 "persons of interest" identified in a lengthy affidavit from the Director of Corporate Enforcement, Ian Drennan, as being the focus of searches on the leaked IN&M data were named on Thursday by the Irish Independent.
His affidavit was submitted as supporting a High Court application that an inquiry be sanctioned into possible unlawful activity at the INM group.
The persons named included broadcaster and Sunday Independent journalist Brendan O'Connor, former Independent journalist Sam Smyth who reported extensively on the Moriarty Tribunal, two barristers Jerry Healy SC and Jacqueline O'Brien SC, who previously worked for the Moriarty Tribunal, and a number of former senior executives at IN&M.
The Moriarty Tribunal investigated the 1996 awarding of the State's second mobile phone licence to Mr O'Brien's consortium, Esat Digifone, and found that financial transactions involving Mr O'Brien and the then Minister for Communications, Michael Lowry, were linked to the licence award. Mr O'Brien and Mr Lowry have always contested the tribunal's findings.
Also among those named was Mandy Scott, former personal assistant to the former IN&M chief executive, Gavin O'Reilly.
According to another of those named, Karl Brophy, former corporate affairs director with IN&M, Ms Scott would have had access to his emails, Mr O'Reilly's emails, and those of the former IN&M chairman and shareholder, Anthony O'Reilly, father of Gavin.
Mr Brophy said he would be consulting his legal advisers about the disclosures in the Irish Independent, and said he expected others would too.
Mr Smyth told The Irish Times he too would be seeking advice.
Mr O’Brien initiated defamation proceedings against Mr Smyth in 2011 but never pursued the c ase.
Also during 2011 Mr O’Brien, who by then was the group’s largest shareholder, sought by way of Mr Buckley to have Mr Smyth removed from covering the Moriarty Tribunal. The IN&M management at the time rejected the request.
Also named among the 19 "persons of interest" identified in Mr Drennan's affidavit by the Irish Independent on Tuesday were Joe Webb, the former chief executive of the group's Irish division; former chief executive, Vincent Crowley; former director and chief financial officer, Donal Buggy; and the late former chairman, James Osborne.
The former journalist now PR executive, Rory Godson, is also on the list published by the newspaper.
The head of the National Union of Journalists, Seamus Dooley, said the possibility that journalists' sources had been compromised by way of the data breach was a serious matter for the sector but also for democracy generally. "This stinks to high heaven", he said on RTÉ.
“This is our Leveson moment,” he said, referring to the UK tribunal into the media that arose from disclosures about certain newspapers hacking into people’s phones to get information.
Mr O’Brien’s spokesman has yet to comment on the matter. A spokesman for Mr Buckley has said it would not be appropriate to comment as the matter is before the courts. The board of IN&M is to take legal advice.
The editor-in-chief of INM, Stephen Rae, has told staff their welfare is the company's primary concern.