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UK Gov using Signal's disappearing messages to evade FOI


Another feature of the app, which is endorsed by none other than Edward Snowden, has attracted Boris Johnson as well as senior government officials: messages can be set to automatically self-destruct from recipients’ devices any time from five seconds to a week after being read. The encrypted nature of the system means that once messages are gone they’re, er, gone, and not even a judge’s order can have them retrieved. And the benefits aren’t limited to making leaks more difficult. The automatic deletion suggests a perilous lack of records on key decision-making processes at a time when many in government are working remotely. No record exists In the short term, freedom of information requests for data can be met with the response that no such records are held as they’ve already been deleted. Manual deletion after a request has been made is an offence under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but if the records have already been deleted, or indeed are automatically deleted after the request is made, no crime is committed. In the longer term, public inquiries into important matters of national interest – and not just how pandemic policy decisions were made on the hoof by the current administration – may be stymied by the fact that no record exists. For example, future historians heading to the National Archives to see how the 2020 pandemic was handled, expecting a wealth of civil servant-penned minutes, may be presented with an empty box marked “Signal”. Signal isn’t the first digital platform to be used by the government with an automatic deletion policy. Starting in late 2004, before the FOIA came into force in early 2005, Downing Street implemented an automatic 90-day deletion of emails aside from those specifically selected by civil servants as relevant for storage in the National Archives. Caught out Leaving it to ministers and spads to choose deletion periods may be problematic. Under the code of practice for the FOIA, publi...     May 31, 2020