Government WhatsApp chats revealed by FOIA

Irish officials used WhatsApp to chat about Brexit, and that's covered by the Freedom of Information Act

Government officials are turning to WhatsApp to chat with colleagues about everything from diplomacy to Brexit - and that means anyone wishing to see such conversations can apply to do so under Freedom of Information Act request. 

The first publicly known FOIA request to WhatsApp comes via Ireland, according to FOI Directory, revealing that a request was made of the Department of Taoiseach after a government WhatsApp group was revealed in a news report. 

The group was set up by the press office to manage official releases sent by departments after the UK Brexit vote, with statements sent out by agencies including Enterpise Ireland sent out at regular intervals in the hopes of calming markets, according to a report in the Times

The group also discussed public responses to the vote from other parties, chatting about their importance and accuracy.

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The use of WhatsApp as "air traffic control" for the press office following Brexit appears to have been the first time the messaging app has been used in that way by the Irish government's media team, with one saying: "WhatsApp has worked out great."

It seems government officials are making good use of WhatsApp, with reports of diplomats using it to set up meetings and manage backchannel negotiations - and even send emojis of aliens to represent Russian President Vladimir Putin - while the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been criticised for using it to chat about confidential subjects. WhatsApp does have end-to-end encryption, but the way its system works means it's less secure than rival chat apps such as Signal, recent reports have noted.  

The Times noted that the Brexit WhatsApp details were released after an appeal to the Information Commissioner by Irish publication RT, after the department initially didn't release the records, though it later said that was a mistake rather than purposeful omission. 

FOI Directory said it's "theorietically possible" to get WhatsApp messages from members of the British government, saying the FOI Act includes any information for public bodies to do their work, and noting that the Information Commissioner's Office suggests text messages and other "official information recorded on mobile devices" is covered. 

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