Ministers and officials can configure messages to remove them instantly, the government has admitted, amplifying concerns about their transparency and accountability.
The confirmation comes as concerns mount that self-destructive messages are being used to avoid scrutiny of decision-making processes, including on key issues such as the government’s response to the coronavirus.
A letter from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) sent to the citizens, a nonprofit organization, in response to a Freedom of Information and Viewing request by The Guardian, says: “Instant messaging (via Google Workspace) can be used in place of email for routine communications where it is not there is a need to keep a record of the communication.
“Chat messages are kept for 90 days to give staff the opportunity to record any important conversations, after which they are permanently deleted. Users can also turn off history, which means messages will be deleted after a chat session ends. “
The letter says that the use of other instant messaging platforms is managed through the use of the DCMS collaboration tools guide, which was also provided but does not contain any reference or restriction to self-destructing messaging services.
Transparency activists have voiced alarm about a culture of “government by WhatsApp.” Ciudadanos has threatened legal action, saying that the use of such functions makes it impossible to carry out the required legal checks on whether a message should be archived for posterity. As a result, information that could be useful for a public investigation, or within the scope of an FOI request, may be lost.
The Citizens believes that DCMS information, addressed because of its responsibilities to national archives and public records, proves its case that inadequate safeguards exist to prevent such a scenario.
Its chief executive, Clara Maguire, said: “If urgent action is not taken to ensure that ministers and officials do not erase the register, critical files, on Covid policy and other key areas of British history, they run the risk of get lost forever. That would be a tragedy.
“Governing with a fading message is totally democratically unacceptable. Frankly, it’s amazing that the government has had a policy for years that allows ministers and officials to delete their instant messages whenever they want. If the government does not solve this problem in 14 days, we will see them in court. “
The DCMS letter says the code of practice on records management is being updated, but Cori Crider, director of the campaign lawyers group Foxglove, who is supporting Ciudadanos in their legal bid, said the existing policy was desperate and needed to be fixed without delay.
“It does nothing to preserve the entire government record and is therefore illegal,” he said. “It is not good to say that they are fixing it now just because Citizens has threatened legal action. This problem needs to be fixed yesterday. The government must immediately send a message to the civil service, telling everyone to stop using the deletion of message settings for government affairs now, before more critical evidence is irretrievably lost. “
The government has been contacted for comment.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism