ICO confirms investigation into gov use of personal email

Health ministers use of all private messaging channels will be looked at, which may also include the use of WhatsApp

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has launched an investigation into the use of personal email accounts by health ministers after it was revealed that former secretary for health, Matt Hancock used his personal Gmail for government business. 

The UK's data regulator will look into all private correspondence channels used by MPs and department officials, which may also include the use of WhatsApp. 

The ICO has the power to seize evidence and recommend criminal prosecution if it finds information has been destroyed, altered or concealed deliberately. It has been widely reported that Hancock "routinely" used a private account, with leaked minutes of an official Department of Health meeting stating that the former health secretary only deals with his private office "via Gmail" as he did not have a department inbox. 

The investigation will also look into private emails from health minister Lord Bethell, who oversaw the awarding of COVID contracts. A report in the Guardian suggests his personal address was copied into at least four official exchanges relating to government contracts during the pandemic. 

"To be clear, the use of private correspondence channels does not in itself break freedom of information or data protection rules," Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said in a blog post.

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"But my worry is that information in private email accounts or messaging services is forgotten, overlooked, auto deleted or otherwise not available when a freedom of information request is later made. This frustrates the freedom of information process, and puts at risk the preservation of official records of decision making. I also worry that emails containing personal details are not properly secured in people's personal email accounts."

Lord Bethel is facing calls to resign, mainly from Labour MPs that have called the use of private emails for government business a "shady practice". Hancock actually resigned for breaching social distancing rules after CCTV footage captured him in a steamy embrace with his aide, Gina Coladangelo. The ICO previously told IT Pro that it is also looking into the leaking of that footage.

"We have seen a growth in employers use of employee monitoring systems during the pandemic," the Commissioner said. "I am in the process of updating my guidance to employers about how they can respect the personal data of their employees in a fair and transparent manner. We are making enquiries and will look at the issues raised by this case, including the onward release of personal data to the media, to inform this work and whether a further regulatory response is warranted."

On the investigation into the use of private emails, Denham said she would present her findings "in due course". This could potentially be her last official business in the role as she is due to step down from the Information Commissioner role in October this year. 

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