Government facing legal challenge as DCMS admits use of automatically deleting messages

Campaign groups Foxglove and The Citizens to launch court case in two weeks if practice is not stopped
Photo: Kate Ter Haar/CC BY 2.0 - Image has been cropped

By Sam Trendall

15 Jun 2021

The government is facing a legal challenge over its use of automatically deleting messages – a practice which the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has admitted.

The planned court case, announced earlier this year by transparency campaign groups The Citizens and Foxglove, relates to the alleged contravention of the UK Public Records Act. The legislation is designed to ensure a wide range of records – including legal and financial documents, as well as ministers’ official papers – are stored for public access.

According to The Citizens, the “law covers… messages between a special adviser and a minister about UK government policy”.

A letter newly sent to the campaign group by DCMS admits that departmental ministers and senior officials exchange messages that, by design, self-delete.

“Instant messaging (through Google Workspace) may be used in preference to email for routine communications where there is no need to retain a record of the communication,” the letter said, according to a report in the Guardian.

“Chat messages are retained for 90 days to provide staff with the opportunity to record any substantive conversations, after which time they are permanently deleted. Users can also switch history off, meaning messages will be deleted once a chat session has finished.”

The admission of the use of self-deleting Google messages comes on the back of what the campaign groups claim are a number of indications that “suggest that a growing share of government business is done” via other private messaging platforms, such as WhatsApp and Signal.

“These apps allow them to delete messages after they’ve read them or minutes later. This lack of transparency is an urgent threat to democratic accountability and to the future of the public record,” The Citizens said.

Signal – which has enhanced encryption measures and the option of auto-deletion – was adopted en masse by Conservative MPs following the party’s 2019 general election victory. Reports have since claimed that the prime minister and other senior Downing Street figures are also among the users of the ultra-secure platform.

Six weeks ago, The Citizens and Foxglove announced that they were preparing to launch a legal challenge through which they hope that “the courts [will] to put a stop to government ministers and advisors... using exploding or disappearing messages to conduct government business”. 

The campaign groups have since raised £43,570 to support their efforts. This is more than the original target of £40,000 – which has since been superseded by a “stretch target” of £60,000.

In light of DCMS's admission that it enables the use of self-deleting messages, the government has been given two weeks to put a stop to the use of such technology – or face the potential legal consequences.

“If urgent steps are not taken to ensure that ministers and officials don’t erase the record, critical files – on Covid policy and other key areas of British history – risk being lost forever. That would be a tragedy,” Clara Maguire, executive director of The Citizens, told the Guardian.

"To govern by vanishing message is totally democratically unacceptable. It’s astonishing, frankly, that government have for years had a policy which allows ministers and officials to delete their instant messages whenever they wish. If the government don’t fix this problem in 14 days, we’ll see them in court.”

Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this article first appeared.

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