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ICO calls for gov review into use of WhatsApp and other private communication channels

Regulator slaps Department of Health and Social Care with reprimand under UK data protection law

Matt Hancock on the move

The UK's data regulator has called for a government review into the use of private correspondence channels, such as WhatsApp and personal email, for state business. 

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) reprimanded the Department of Health and Social Care (DHCS) for sharing official information via WhatsApp, texts and private email accounts, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The watchdog said that extensive use of such channels within the department represents risks to accountability and transparency within the government and that the DHCS lacked the "appropriate organisational or technical controls" to ensure risks were properly managed. 

"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 reprimand issued to DHSC has been made under the UK's general data protection regulation and requires the department to improve its process and procedures around the handling of personal information via private communication channels. 

Former Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, launched an investigation in July last year amid concerns that the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, and his deputy, James Bethell had extensively used private methods of communication for government business. The ICO's report found that official information had been shared via 29 WhatsApp accounts, 17 private text accounts, eight private email accounts and one LinkedIn messaging service. 

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"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," the current information commissioner, John Edwards said. 

"However, the price of using these methods, although not against the law, must not result in a lack of transparency and inadequate data security."

In response, a government spokesperson said the ICO report would be considered carefully, however, they also pointed out that the report "makes clear that the correspondence channels used by ministers and the department were lawful". 

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