There is a worry that self-destructing messages could be used by politicians and advisers to avoid accountability. Lawyers are preparing to launch a judicial review against the use of such messages as their implementation would make it impossible to carry out required legal checks to determine if correspondence should be archived for posterity. The basis of this argument rests on existing legislation from 1958 that requires documents to be archived but does not distinguish between formats.
Popular messaging app, WhatsApp, recently introduced a feature where users could choose to make messages between senders and recipients permanently disappear after seven days. This, combined with the fact that encrypted messaging platforms, such as WhatsApp and Signal, are increasingly being used to discuss and conduct governmental matters, has made the decision-making process less transparent. The highly encrypted ProtonMail service has also been used by some officials to avoid scrutiny.
Private emails and text messages that are used to discuss government business are subject to freedom of information requests. This is as per a declaration made by the Information Commissioner’s Office in 2011 involving Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove, who is the current Minister for the Cabinet Office.
As such, while it is an offence to destroy messages after a freedom of information request has been made, the introduction of self-destructing messaging functions has raised concerns about legal processes.
Richard Ovenden, Bodley librarian at the University of Oxford and president of the Digital Preservation Commission, has said that politicians’ use of disappearing messages leaves them ‘unable to be scrutinised by the public who they are employed to serve’.
Cori Crider, a director of the campaigning law group Foxglove, also stated: ‘It’s not appropriate to conduct government business on disappearing-message platforms’ and that the ‘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’.
The case is being brought by Crider on behalf of the Citizens, a non-profit political group that has previously run campaigns criticising the government’s distribution of pandemic-related contracts.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said that ‘Records of official communications are retained in accordance with the relevant publicly published guidance. There are appropriate arrangements already in place and this is kept under periodic review’.