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Treasury wiped data from over 100 gov-issued smartphones in 2020

The department's IT desk reset 117 handsets after users repeatedly entered the wrong pin number

The Treasury wiped all of the data from more than 100 government-issued mobile phones in 2020 as a result of staff repeatedly entering the wrong PIN number.

The department's IT desk has reset 117 of the 2,100 mobile phones it was in charge of, according to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request from the PA Media news agency.

The concern is that each reset is likely to have resulted in the loss of text messages sent from those devices, with potential records of government business wiped out. The Conservative party is currently under heavy scrutiny over the ministerial use of mobile services such as WhatsApp that allow for messages to be deleted, both by the send and receiver. 

In the case of the Treasury, it's believed that bosses are also included in the number of users that had phones reset, with the department's permanent secretary, Tom Scholar, already admitting as such. Scholar was questioned by a committee earlier in the year regarding communications he had with the former prime minister, David Cameron, regarding the financial firm Greensill Capital. 

Cameron had contacted his former colleagues to lobby for Greensill's inclusion in the Bank of England's loan scheme. When asked, Scholar said he was unable to divulge the contents of his text to Cameron because his phone had been reset in June 2020. 

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"Under government security as applies to mobile phones, if the password is incorrectly entered more than a few times, the phone is locked, and the only way to unlock it is to reset it," he told the committee. "Resetting it means that the data on it is lost. I knew that when it happened last June, and I am certainly not the only person to whom that has happened."

The revelations from the FOI are likely to fuel growing calls for an investigation into the government's use of mobile communications. The Information Commissioner's Office is currently investigating the Health Department's use of personal emails, as well as WhatsApp, while a number of privacy campaigners, such as Foxglove, are launching legal action specifically against the use of WhatsApp for government business.

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