UK gov threatened with legal action over WhatsApp use

Non-profit groups warn that policies discussed over "deletable" messages could lead to a historic "black hole"

When Boris Johnson uses WhatsApp for official government business, he may be in violation of UK laws due to the platform's support for "self-destructing" messages. 

That's according to non-profit groups Foxglove and Citizen, which are threatening legal action over Freedom of Information (FOI) requests that the government is yet to acquiesce.

Citizen said it has sent "several" FOI requests to the government regarding messages on "topics that are in the public interest", but, so far, these have not been acknowledged. As a result, Foxglove and Citizen have sent a legal letter with the threat of a judicial review if it receives an "unsatisfactory" response from the government.  Ministerial use of WhatsApp and Signal is well documented, with various reports of the prime minister using the app to discuss official business with special advisors and other MPs. Foxglove said the capability to instantly delete messages means that legal analysis can never be fully performed and that for a democratically elected government, it presents a lack of accountability. 

A spokesperson for Citizen said that the government's use of digital messaging apps could render "one giant black hole" in British history.  

"Government business is being conducted under a cloak of secrecy enabled by the tech platforms," the spokesperson said. "The only way we can have any hope of holding power to account or even simply maintaining the historic record is through transparency. We desperately need to challenge what we believe is a clear breach of the law on behalf of both Britain's investigative journalists and its future historians." In response, a spokesperson for the Cabinet Office told IT Pro that "records of official communications are retained in accordance with the relevant publicly published guidance". It also pointed out that instant messages are subject to section 3 of the Public Records Act 1958 which requires them to be permanently preserved so they can be made available for appraisal, selection, sensitivity review and transfer to The National Archive at the appropriate time. The director of Foxglove, Cori Crider, said it was "deeply concerned" by the government's approach to data, suggesting it involved collecting more and more information on the general public while offering less information on itself.  "This turns democracy on its head," Crider said. "Privacy is for the people - transparency is for the government. And if we have to sue to tip the scales back in favour of the citizen, so be it." 

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