Government by WhatsApp: Threats to Accountability through use of self-deleting messages.

August 5, 2021

3 min read

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What's going on here?

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) of the UK government has admitted to the use of self-deleting messages by civil servants and ministers.

What does this mean?

The admission by the Department came in a letter as a response to a freedom of information request sent by the Citizens, a non-profit organisation set up during the pandemic with the mission to use impact journalism to hold the government to account. This letter was centred on concerns of the conducting of official business via informal platforms such as WhatsApp and Signal, which could lead to a breakdown of transparency and accountability. The Department letter stated that instant messaging is preferred for routine communication between government ministers where there was no need for maintaining a record of the communication. Chat messages would be instantly deleted after 90 days, and users also have the ability to switch off their chat history, leading to the self-deletion of chats. The Citizens, in response, have issued statements giving the government two weeks to stop the usage of self-deleting messages or face legal consequences.

What's the big picture effect?

In any democracy, privacy is for the citizen, and transparency is for the government. But recent trends show a reversal of this age-old tenet. Many Conservative MPs, including the Prime Minister, have shifted much of their business to the digital realm, making their communications more discreet. The Treasury leaked important text messages sent by Chancellor Sunak to David Cameron’s private phone amid the Greensill lobbying row. It has come to the point where some MPs intend for WhatsApp messages sent by them in informal group chats with journalists to become official press releases.   

The Citizens and their legal partner, Foxglove, argue that the use of such self-deleting messages is in contravention of the UK Public Records Act, which requires the preservation of communications that document “the principal policies and actions of the UK government”. This, they argue, includes text messages between government officials about coronavirus policies, as well as recent Brexit developments, which are increasingly being discussed via platforms with self-deleting features such as WhatsApp, Signal, and others.

While the Information Commissioner’s office declared nearly a decade ago that private emails and text messages discussing government business would be subject to freedom of information requests, the practice of self-deleting and encrypted messaging makes this impossible. The Citizens argue this prevents the public from scrutinizing the current government through Freedom of Information Act requests on the basis of such communications, leading to a lack of accountability. For example, the government failed to respond to a freedom of information request to release 12 exchanges with the Treasury permanent secretary, because the secretary’s phone had been wiped to factory settings, deleting all the chats. 

It also prevents the ability of such important communications to be preserved for posterity, so that future governments can learn from this unprecedented national crisis. The Public Records Act requires all such policy communications to be preserved, so that they can be analysed and lessons for the future can be drawn from them. However, the use of self-deleting platforms puts the onus on the politician to decide whether a text message is important enough for public access, creating dangerous issues of transparency and corruption.

While the DCMS has stated that the use of other instant messaging platforms is managed through their guidance on the use of collaboration tools such as Google Workspace, which was outlined clearly in their letter, this provides no restriction on self-deleting messaging platforms. As technology advances to help governments both become more discreet and amass more information on the public, we are witnessing a reversal of the democratic bargain.

Report written by Roshni Suresh Babu 

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