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Revealed: Government Advises MPs and Staff to Turn On ‘Disappearing Messages’ Citing Security Concerns

Deletions seem more likely in the future as politicians fear the consequences of messages entering the public domain

Rishi Sunak in February 2020. Photo: Amer Ghazzal/Alamy

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The Government is explicitly encouraging MPs and staff to take advantage of the ‘disappearing message’ feature on WhatsApp to “limit the length of time messages are saved on your device”, Byline Times can reveal.

As Scotland’s First Minister Humza Yousaf announces a review of the Scottish Government’s use of private instant messaging systems, this newspaper can shed light on advice issued last June, called “ten tips to make your phone more secure”.  

Published by the parliamentary security department, section nine focuses on ‘messages’. It states that “by turning on ‘disappearing messages’ for important personal contacts, you will limit what an attacker gets access to.  Admins of group chats are often able to set this for the group as well”.

The issue of deleted WhatsApp messages has become a matter of national debate as concerns of a ‘culture of secrecy’ in government mounts. Both the Scottish and UK Governments have been criticised for incomplete disclosure of WhatsApp communications relevant to the COVID Inquiry.

Such deletions seem even more likely in the future as politicians fear the consequences of saved messages falling into the public domain.

Recently leaked WhatsApp messages, for instance, revealed strained relations between former Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, with Sturgeon describing Johnson as a “f***ing clown” in one message. 

The June 2023 guidance issued to MPs and parliamentary staff

The use of the deletion mode already appears to be widespread.

At the COVID Inquiry in Edinburgh, Scotland’s senior clinical advisor, Professor Jason Leitch, recently testified about overseeing a WhatsApp group named ‘Star Chamber’, which was configured to automatically delete messages. This group discussed lockdown measures for local authorities. Prof Leitch maintained that his deletion of messages was in accordance with Scottish Government advice, despite claims that this was contrary to proper record-keeping. 

The Inquiry appeared to criticise this practice, suggesting that it might be seen as an enthusiastic adoption of message deletion policy, potentially to avoid Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. Prof Leitch disagreed with this interpretation.

Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, Sir Gregor Smith, also said that the Scottish Government’s advice was to not retain information longer than necessary, recording only the “essence” of pertinent information on government systems.

However, it has become increasingly difficult to establish under FOI what is retained and what is deleted.

In 2021, the advocacy group All The Citizens took the Government to court over its refusal to release WhatsApp messages under the FOI Act. In that case, Sarah Harrison, the Chief Operating Officer for the Cabinet Office, gave a witness statement about WhatsApp groups that the Prime Minister was included in. 

“Anything relevant to public record would be saved either through the Prime Minister’s Private Office support team (who provide 24 hour administrative assistance), by actions being formally commissioned by officials through government channels and/or the box process, in accordance with the No 10 WhatsApp Policy,” she wrote. 

When Byline Times asked how many WhatsApp messages relevant to the public record were saved by such teams in 2021, the Cabinet Office refused to say.  


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It would neither confirm nor deny that any such messages had been saved, arguing it was not in the public interest to do so. Byline Times requested an internal review of this refusal in June 2022, but did not hear back from the Cabinet Office.

This newspaper also wanted to know how many No 10 WhatsApp messages were shared with Sue Gray for her report into lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street. This was also refused. To admit that WhatsApp messages had been given to Gray, the Cabinet Office argued, would “reveal information about the investigative methods and information gathering techniques, and assist a person to avoid detection in the future”.

A refusal by the Cabinet Office to admit that its staff and MPs use WhatsApp adds a further barrier for the public to establish what messages are being deleted.

In recent days, the Government launched a new WhatsApp channel to provide public information, allowing users to opt-in to receive important updates directly to their phones. This channel will, the Government has claimed, disseminate information on various topics such as public health, tax deadlines and government services, and is separate from the national emergency alert system, focusing on amplifying information rather than urgent alerts. To date, 13,000 people have signed up to the service.

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