“Even stating what channels are not used would provide useful information to hostile actors on what to target”

Downing Street FOI Officer

February 25, 2021

Facts

Journalist Iain Overton sent an FOI request to Downing Street on 26 February 2021, asking about Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s use of Whatsapp. 

The request was rejected on the following grounds. 

“To confirm which channels are used, or to provide details of the material transmitted via those channels, would provide a vector for those who might wish to access such communications. That in turn would impact this Office’s ability to conduct internal communications in a secure manner. Even stating what channels are not used would provide useful information to hostile actors on what to target.” 

Less than six months later, civil servant Sue Gray made numerous references to Government use of WhatsApp in her public report into parties in Downing Street during lockdown. 

There appears to have been a change in policy. 

Mr Overton then asked the Government: “Who gave Sue Gray approval to publish WhatsApp messages as such, and what risk assessment was undertaken in light of this”. 

A report titled Behind the screens - maintaining government transparency and data security in the age of messaging apps was published in July 2022 by the Information Comissioner’s Office. The report looked at the the use of private correspondence channels by Ministers, and staff employed by the Department for Health & Social Care (DHSC). Looking at how the use of private correspondence channels affected transparency and accountability regarding decisions made by the DHSC during the pandemic it found that “Evidence more widely available in the public domain also suggests this practice is commonly seen across much of the rest of Government and predates the pandemic.”. 

The report goes on to list WhatsApp specifically as the most commonly used private correspondence channel with DHSC saying that official information has been shared through 29 private WhatsApp accounts. 

The report concluded that “The use of such channels presented risks to the confidentiality, integrity and accessibility of the data exchanged.”

We reached out to Mr Overton for any updates on his request and as of 15 July 2022 he said “they are seeing if answering it is in the public interest.”

Verdict

Michael Gove claimed that transparency drives “everything that the the government do.” This episode shows yet again Gove’s claim was nonsensical. 

We approached the Downing Street Press Office to give them a chance to comment, but received no response.

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