MPs Face Legal Challenge Over Disappearing Messages

Evil parliament (c) pisaphotography, Shutterstock 2014

Legal challenge seeks to ban ministers from using disappearing messages on apps such as WhatsApp and Signal over transparency fears

MPs could be restricted from using self-destructing messages on platforms such as WhatsApp and Signal, under a legal challenge mounted by transparency campaigners.

The WhatsApp and Signal messaging apps are used by both Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet ministers.

Both platforms offer an option that automatically deletes a message from both the sender’s and the recipient’s devices after a period of time, with WhatsApp launching its version of the feature last November.

But campaigners fear lawmakers and advisers could use such features to avoid accountability.

telecoms, smartphone, whatsappTransparency

There are also concerns that disappearing messages could create a “black hole” in British history.

The government said “appropriate arrangements” are in place to ensure records are kept.

“It’s not appropriate to conduct government business on disappearing-message platforms,” said Cori Crider, a director of campaigning law group Foxglove.

“The basic point is that privacy is for the citizen and transparency is for the government. This government is amassing more and more data on all of us and we have less and less information on them. That has the democratic bargain exactly backwards.”

Foxglove is bringing the legal action on behalf of non-profit political campaign group the Citizens.

The firm has sent a letter to government on the issue, and said that if a satisfactory response is not received within 14 days it may proceed to a judicial review.

‘Black hole’

The Information Commissioner’s Office has previously declared that private messaging services, such as emails and text messages, are subject to freedom of information requests.

And official guidance says a record needs to be retained if it relates to “substantive discussions or decisions”, such as messages between advisors and ministers over government policy.

But the increasingly routine use of “disappearing” messages threatens to leave a “black hole” in British history, the Citizens said.

“We are in an unprecedented national emergency and we are going to have no records of how decisions were made or even who made them,” the group said in a statement.

It added that tech platforms are enabling a government “cloak of secrecy”.

The Cabinet Office said “appropriate arrangements” are in place to ensure records of official communications are retained and these are under “periodic review”.

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