Ephemeral messages remove scrutiny from government

The writer is president of Digital Preservation Coalition and author of ‘Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack’

Deep in the stacks of Oxford’s Bodleian Library is a remarkable sheet of paper written in the 1660s. It contains an exchange of private messages between King Charles II and his chief minister, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon. The document contains the handwriting of the two men as they play out a tetchy exchange concerning the British monarch’s costs, which Clarendon was struggling to contain.

“I would willingly make a visit to my sister at Tonbridge for a night or two at farthest,” states the king, “when do you think I can I can best spare the time?” Clarendon, with an eye to the cost, replies with a suggestion, adding “I suppose you will go with a light trayne.” The king’s answer is simply that “I intend to take nothing but my night bag.” Clarendon is incensed by this provocative understatement: “God, you will not go without 40 or 50 horse.” The royal put down is epic in its haughty brevity: “I counte that parte of my night bag.”

Today’s private messages of those in the inner echelons of state affairs are vastly more ephemeral than those of their 17th-century predecessors. This sheet of paper found its way into the Bodleian where it can be studied alongside the other “state papers” collected by Clarendon, but it could easily have been lost or destroyed.

The advent across the world of encrypted communications that can be readily used via smartphones leaves the historians of tomorrow with a huge gap. Even more urgently, it leaves the work of officers of the state, whether ministers, senior civil servants or special advisers, unable to be scrutinised by the public who they are employed to serve.

In the UK, the Public Records Act of 1958 was intended to serve the people both now and in the future by preserving records that document the policies and actions of the central government, including those that illustrate the process of developing policy and legislation and the structures and decision-making processes in government.

The mode of communication in government has already shifted to the digital realm, and the use of such technologies should be a matter of concern for all members of the public whatever their political persuasion. They include services like Snapchat and Signal, where messages auto-erase, being designed originally for teenagers who did not wish to have their private messages hanging around on their phones to be discovered by parents.

Today, the systems of recalcitrant youths have been adopted by senior government officials and politicians. This trend was spotted by Dominic Grieve (then a Conservative MP), prompting him last year to table a motion before the House of Commons that the Queen be requested to direct ministers to disclose to the House all correspondence and other communications “to, from or within” the administration relating to the prorogation of parliament before the Brexit deadline.

Mr Grieve specified that this meant both formal and informal communications, both written and electronic, including messaging services — naming but not limiting the measure to WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Facebook messenger, encrypted and unencrypted private email accounts, text messages and iMessage — and the use of both official and personal mobile phones. This was, he said, for the sake of “propriety in government”, and essential to engender the trust of the public, which he pointed out was essential for the proper function of our unwritten constitution.

Whether these messages self-destruct or not, the architects of the Public Records Act had an eye to the future. The act itself is “format neutral”, leaving these communications in the class of records that must be permanently preserved, not just for historians 350 years from now to pore over, but for today’s public to be able to scrutinise the actions of our elected and paid officials. Government departments and the National Archives have already adjusted to the use of email, which for many years has been subject to normal government record-keeping practices. We now face the use of systems controlled by tech companies, but they remain subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

These two concerns, addressing both the present and the future, are why I have written to Oliver Dowden, minister for digital, culture media and sport, in my capacity as president of the UK-based Digital Preservation Coalition, asking for clarification and reassurance regarding the status of these communications as public records, and over the arrangements in place for the preservation of, and access to them. We need our government to be open for both study and scrutiny now, and long into the future.


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