The Secret Messaging Dilemma: The Ethics of UK Government Officials Using WhatsApp”

This article, by Simon Pearson, discusses the use of WhatsApp by government officials and its implications for transparency and accountability. Oh and a bit of Hancock.


In recent years, the use of instant messaging applications such as WhatsApp by government officials has become a topic of controversy, even more so since the leak of Matt Hancock’s messages by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott, which has heightened concerns about the security of government communication and the need for transparency.

As Shoshana Zuboff, the author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” has noted, the use of WhatsApp by government officials opens them up to potential surveillance by private companies that collect data from these platforms. This information can then be used to change policy decisions, which could lead to conflicts of interest and unethical behaviour.

Furthermore, the use of WhatsApp by government officials also raises serious questions about transparency. WhatsApp conversations are encrypted, which means that they cannot be accessed by outside parties without permission. The limited clarity and openness regarding sensitive government communications raises significant concerns.

If government officials are using WhatsApp to talk about things that are important to the whole country, these conversations must be open to the public. Without this, the public has no means of knowing if decisions are made in their best interests or are influenced by outside influences.

According to the Institute of Government, there needs to be more or better guidance on how government officials should use WhatsApp. The app is a good way to communicate, so it wouldn’t make sense to ban it. However, “the practicalities of using WhatsApp in government have been ignored for too long.” The report asks the prime minister to follow the advice that “ministers, special advisers, and officials should not use personal phones for important government business.” This would make it less likely that important information would be lost and keep personal and government business from getting mixed up. Additionally, the report recommends that departments manage WhatsApp properly, ensure relevant messages are kept for the long term, and ensure WhatsApp does not hinder government scrutiny.

On March 22, 2022, Peter Walker reported in The Guardian that a senior Cabinet Office official had confirmed that communication within the UK government during the pandemic was often done via instant messaging, such as WhatsApp. This comes as it emerged that several messages have been lost from Boris Johnson’s phone. While official guidance requires ministers to make a separate record of any relevant conversations, it appears that some messages were not saved. The Good Law Project and Citizens, a non-profit media organisation, are challenging the use of private messaging in government. The loss of messages gives rise to concerns about the government’s accountability and its ability to be held accountable.

In most cases, governments use the same social media platforms as the public, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others. However, some governments may have their own customised versions of these platforms or specialised tools that allow them to monitor and manage their social media presence more efficiently. For example, some governments may use social media monitoring software to track and analyse social media activity related to specific topics or issues. However, it is important to note that the use of specialised tools or customised versions of social media platforms by governments may also raise concerns about privacy, security, and openness.

The case of Matt Hancock, the former UK Health Secretary, who gave all his WhatsApp messages to a journalist to write his memoirs, raises significant ethical concerns.

The case of Matt Hancock, the former UK Health Secretary, who gave all his WhatsApp messages to a journalist to write his memoirs, raises significant ethical concerns. Even if a non-disclosure agreement was signed, this action could still violate the confidentiality and privacy of the individuals and organisations involved in those conversations. The government officials have a responsibility to maintain the confidentiality of sensitive information and protect the privacy of the individuals involved. The use of private messaging apps like WhatsApp to conduct official government business poses significant risks, particularly when government officials like Hancock provide access to their conversations to outsiders. This practise makes it hard for people to trust the government.

Some observers have suggested that the timing of Isabel Oakeshott’s leak of Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages may have been a deliberate attempt to deflect attention from the ongoing UK Covid-19 Inquiry. The Daily Telegraph, which published the messages, has been critical of lockdown measures, which promotes the views of the Barrington Declaration, which some have criticised as promoting eugenics. The Guardian’s Sonia Sodha reported on October 11, 2020 that the declaration was issued by scientists at the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a libertarian thinktank, and caused controversy for its call for an immediate resumption of “life as normal” for everyone except the “vulnerable”. The statement was written by three science professors from Harvard, Oxford and Stanford, giving it the sheen of academic respectability, but was criticised for its unsupported claims about herd immunity and lack of acknowledgement of the massive scientific uncertainty that exists with a new disease. By releasing the messages, Oakeshott and the Telegraph may have sought to discredit the government’s handling of the pandemic and further support their anti-lockdown stance. It appears that some of the Twitter messages posted today by those who are against lockdown measures and the refusal to wear masks seem to support this idea.

With the constant dripping of stories in the Telegraph, the important work of the COVID-19 inquiry may be obscured, and it is crucial that its work is completed without bias. The Oakeshott leak has further complicated matters by overshadowing the views of those who have suffered family bereavement connected to the pandemic and were due to present evidence to the enquiry, which is deeply disappointing. These families deserve better than to have their voices drowned out by sensationalist headlines and media speculation. It is essential that the inquiry is allowed to do its job without interference or distraction, so that the truth can be uncovered and lessons can be learned for the future.

With the constant dripping of stories in the Telegraph, the important work of the COVID-19 inquiry may be obscured, and it is crucial that its work is completed without bias.

The Hancock leak has revealed just how entrenched the messaging app is in the workings of the UK government, highlighting its usefulness in quick, efficient communication but also exposing potential problems with decision-making based on partial information and the exclusion of certain individuals from conversations. Concerns have also been raised about how information from WhatsApp chats is saved and kept for the future. Overall, this leak shows that the government needs to do more to keep track of how WhatsApp is used in government.

For officials to be able to use private messaging apps in a way that protects private information and privacy rights, the government needs to set clear rules and guidelines. To ensure transparency and accountability, governments must use social media responsibly and take the necessary measures to address privacy and security concerns.

First appeared on my blog which can be found >> here!

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Simon Pearson is on the Editorial Board of the Anti*Capitalist Resistance and is a Midlands-based political activist.

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