The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has repeated calls for an urgent review into government ministers’ use of private messaging apps for official business, after 100,000 WhatsApp messages were leaked to a newspaper.
The messages had been shared by former health secretary Matt Hancock with right-wing journalist Isabel Oakeshott so she could ghost write his Pandemic Diaries memoir. However, Oakeshott subsequently turned them over to the Daily Telegraph, which has begun publishing a series of revelations about his time in office during the pandemic.
The ICO said in a statement that although data protection law ensures people’s personal information is used properly and fairly, there are carve-outs for journalism in the public interest, thus protecting Oakeshott’s leaking of the official WhatsApp messages.
However, the case raises additional concerns about “the conditions on which departing members of government retain and subsequently use official information,” it said.
“Today’s coverage does again raise questions about the risks that the use of WhatsApp and other private channels bring, particularly around transparency,” the statement continued.
“Last year, the ICO called for a review into the use of private messaging apps within government, and we would reiterate that call today. Public officials should be able to show their workings, through proper recording of decisions and through the Freedom of Information Act, to ensure that trust in those decisions is secured and lessons are learned for the future.”
The regulator has previously pointed out that use of private messaging platforms for official business may increase the risk of data leaks, mis-sent messages and “hacked communications.”
The key story alleged by the Daily Telegraph is that Hancock rejected advice to test anyone entering a care home for COVID-19, a decision which may have cost thousands of lives.
Although Hancock disputes those allegations, the trove of messages reportedly contain many other embarrassing revelations about government business during the period.
Oakeshott claims she turned the messages over to the newspaper because of fears that an ongoing official enquiry into government’s handling of COVID will be a whitewash.
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