WhatsApp use exposes government departments to risk

Data indicates government departments are “flying blind” when it comes to using WhatsApp

Posted 15 June 2020 by Christine Horton

There is a marked lack of transparency and policy surrounding government organisations’ use of messaging applications, according to new data.

Research shows use of messaging apps like WhatsApp is on the rise across all functions of central and local government. This is despite WhatsApp’s legal terms of service prohibiting any non-personal use.

Eighteen percent of UK government ministerial departments admit to using WhatsApp – but 50 percent have no specific policy to govern its usage.

A higher number (27 percent) of UK local government bodies said they are using WhatsApp within their organisation. Of those, 35 percent did not have, or were not aware of, a specific policy to govern its usage.

Only one out of more than 80 councils that responded to the request, Gedling Borough Council, specifically had a policy of blocking usage of WhatsApp by its staff.

Governance risks

The research was conducted by Guild, a British messaging and community platform. The company sourced data using a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to a number of Ministerial Departments, London Boroughs, Metropolitan and District Councils.

The firm points out that consumer messaging apps like WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram are not GDPR compliant, and that they come with governance risks when used professionally.

“A time of reckoning and proper policy debate must surely be coming. Needs-must during the pandemic but as we come out of it we need clear government policy and legislation around the use of WhatsApp. And the government hasn’t set any example to follow so far,” Guild founder and CEO Ashley Friedlein tells Think Digital Partners.

“The UK government has written a letter to Facebook asking for lawful access to WhatsApp data to protect its citizens. Facebook has ignored that plea. So it’s time the UK government took a stance. Under what circumstances is it ok to use WhatsApp or not? And the government should start with adhering to its own position.”

Guild says that while some government departments have produced guidelines for their staff, a lack of consistency and shared governance around the use of consumer messaging apps is evident.

Guild founder and CEO Ashley Friedlein

Messaging “a mess”

“We must admit that current UK government policy around the proper use of messaging is a mess,” says Friedlein. “If WhatsApp isn’t ok, is Signal, or any others, really any better? Whatever the answer, the point is that there are no clear policies at the moment. We seem to be flying blind and largely bowing to whatever is most convenient rather than considering properly what is right.

“Currently, official UK government policy on the correct use of messaging, and which messaging apps are allowed, either doesn’t exist, or it lacks clarity, or it is perilously weak. For society and democracy’s sake, we need an approach to messaging that combines respect for the user with respect for the law.”

Consumers turning to WhatsApp during crisis

A survey conducted in March 2020 by consulting firm Kantar shows that use of WhatsApp has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, the messaging platform has seen a 40 percent increase in usage, globally.

However, the research found that traditional nationwide news channels (broadcast and newspaper) are still the most trusted sources of information. Fifty-two percent of people identifying them as a ‘trustworthy’ source.

Government agency websites are regarded as trustworthy by only 48 percent of people, suggesting that government measures are not providing citizens with assurances and security.