Mon Jun 14 2021
The fact that politicians and civil servants can turn off history when using Google Workspace could be challenged in the courts
Thanks to a Freedom of Information request submitted by the data transparency campaign group, The Citizens, the UK Government have admitted Ministers and civil servants can, if they so wish, set their messages on Google Workspace to delete automatically if they feel there’s no need to keep them as part of an official record.
The DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) admitted in a letter that all ministers, civil servants and other staff are permitted to use Google Workspace, an instant messaging service, instead of their official email "for routine communications where there is no need to retain a record of the communication".
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.
As part of the FOI request, further details were provided to The Citizens campaign group that explained how collaboration tools worked within UK Government departments and the guidance staff received around using them.
The FOI was submitted last month after the campaign group teamed up with a law firm called Foxglove to challenge the Government on this issue.
A pre-action protocol letter was sent to the Secretary of State on the 26th of last month, with legal arguments set out as to why the campaign group felt the UK Government shouldn’t be using self-deleting messages for communication between ministers and staff.
Their argument focuses on the fact that these self-deleting images don’t allow for transparency and posed an "urgent threat to democratic accountability and to the future of the public record."
As part of the pre-action protocol letter, they also pointed out that the UK Public Records Act 1958 mandates that all government records about government policy to be reviewed and retained for public archiving.
This law covers, for example, messages between a special adviser and a minister about UK government policy - such as preparations for Brexit or the government response to the coronavirus pandemic. 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. 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.
A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office, when speaking to the BBC, confirmed that there are already "appropriate arrangements" in place for the recording/deletion of official records. Periodic reviews are also conducted to make sure that current collection methods are still fit for purpose.
It's no good to say they're fixing it now just because the Citizens has threatened legal action. This problem needs fixing yesterday. The government needs immediately to send out a message across the civil service, telling everyone to stop using deleting message settings for government business now - before more critical evidence is irretrievably lost.
Mon Jun 14 2021