UK government needs to stop using private chat channels

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has told the government to conduct a review into the systemic risks and areas for improvement surrounding the use of private correspondence channels, such as¬†WhatsApp, private email and other messaging apps by ministers and government officials.

According to the data protection watchdog, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), which was the main focus of its review, used these channels frequently, posing real risks to government accountability and transparency.

It said the DHSC did not have the “appropriate organisational or technical controls” to ensure that risks were properly managed. As a result, it has asked for a government-wide examination of how such channels are used across Whitehall.

UK Information Commissioner John Edwards said he understood the value of instant communication that something like WhatsApp can bring, particularly during the pandemic where officials were forced to make quick decisions and work to meet varying demands.

“However, the price of using these methods, although not against the law, must not result in a lack of transparency and inadequate data security”, he added.

The ICO was prompted to open an inquiry in July last year after concerns were raised about the use of private messaging channels by the former health secretary Matt Hancock and his deputy, James Bethell, in the context of awarding contracts to private companies. On learning that it might be searched by a committee investigating Covid contracts, Bethell claimed to have lost his phone.