11 Jul 2022
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has today called for a government review into the systemic risks and areas for improvement around the use of private correspondence channels – including private email, WhatsApp and other similar messaging apps.
The ICO report – Behind the screens - maintaining government transparency and data security in the age of messaging apps – details a yearlong investigation, launched in 2021 by Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, into the use of these channels by Ministers and officials at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) during the pandemic.
The investigation found that the lack of clear controls and the rapid increase in the use of messaging apps and technologies – such as WhatsApp – had the potential to lead to important information around the government’s response to the pandemic being lost or insecurely handled.
An example of this included some protectively marked information being located in non-corporate or private accounts outside of DHSC’s official systems. This information, which had been stored on outside servers, shows an oversight in the consideration of storage and retention of this information and the associated risks this could bring.
The ICO concluded that there were real risks to transparency and accountability within government and has now called for a review of practices as well as action to be taken to ensure improvements are made in relation to how officials and Ministers use private correspondence channels moving forward.
John Edwards, UK Information Commissioner, said:
“I understand the value of instant communication that something like WhatsApp can bring, particularly during the pandemic where officials were forced to make quick decisions and work to meet varying demands. However, the price of using these methods, although not against the law, must not result in a lack of transparency and inadequate data security.
“Public officials should be able to show their workings, for both record keeping purposes and to maintain public confidence. That is how trust in those decisions is secured and lessons are learnt for the future.
“The broader point is making sure the Freedom of Information Act keeps working to ensure public authorities remain accountable to the people they serve. Understanding the changing role of technology is part of that picture. I’ll be setting out more details on how my office will approach FOI differently later this week when I launch ICO25 – the ICO’s new three-year plan.”
The ICO’s findings
Key findings from the ICO investigation included that:
Action taken by the ICO
The ICO has now issued DHSC with a practice recommendation ordering the department to improve its management of FOI requests and address inconsistencies in its existing FOI guidance. This will ensure FOI requests are better managed, particularly in relation to any material created or contained in personal accounts.
A reprimand has also been issued under the UK General Data Protection Regulation (UKGDPR), requiring DHSC to improve its processes and procedures around the handling of personal information through private correspondence channels and ensure information is kept secure. We have also issued a set of recommendations to further support this.
To make sure wider lessons are learnt, the ICO is also calling for the government to set up a separate review into the use of these channels and how the benefits of new technologies, including private messaging services, can be realised whilst ensuring data protection and transparency requirements are met. This will help address the significant inconsistencies in approach that appear to be taking place across government and help ensure that risks are better managed.
The ICO also welcomes the decision of the UK COVID-19 Inquiry, chaired by Baroness Hallett, to accept the ICO’s recommendation to consider how information was recorded by the government during the pandemic specifically. This will further ensure lessons are learnt for the future.
The ICO has previously published guidance on how the FOI Act applies to official information held on private correspondence channels. The guidance explains that any official business should be conducted through corporate communication channels, such as departmental email accounts, wherever possible and that official information exchanged through private channels should be transferred onto official systems as soon as possible.
Read the full report on our website.
ICO Press Office
Information Commissioner's Office