ICO urges ministers to review use of Whatsapp and other private channels | Information commissioner | The Guardian
The UK data watchdog has urged ministers to review the use of private correspondence channels after reprimanding the Department of Health and Social Care for sharing official information via WhatsApp, texts and private email accounts.
The Information Commissioner’s Office said there had been extensive use of such channels within the department, which represented real risks to accountability and transparency within government.
It said the DHSC had lacked the “appropriate organisational or technical controls” to ensure risks were properly managed and called for a government-wide review into the use of such channels – including private emails and WhatsApp messages – across Whitehall.
“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,” said the ICO.
The ICO launched its investigation in July last year amid concerns about the use of private messaging channels by the former health secretary Matt Hancock – and his deputy, James Bethell. The report found that official information had been shared through 29 WhatsApp accounts, 17 private text accounts, eight private email accounts and one LinkedIn account.
John Edwards, the 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.”
The ICO said a reprimand had been issued to DHSC under the UK general data protection regulation, requiring that the department improve its processes and procedures around the handling of personal information through private correspondence channels and ensuring that information is kept secure.
A government spokesperson said the ICO report would be considered carefully and that a review into the policy for use of “non-corporate” communication channels was already under way.
“This report makes clear that the correspondence channels used by ministers and the department were lawful,” said the spokesperson. “Ministers and officials had to work at extraordinary pace during the pandemic and the use of modern technology was necessary to deliver important public services that saved lives.”
The report found that a mix of private and official accounts were used by Hancock, who resigned a month before the investigation was launched, and other DHSC ministers including Lord Bethell. It also found that material from private accounts was regularly forwarded to official accounts to “ensure information was recorded appropriately”.
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