Sensitive government phone records still easy to delete – investigation
Months after MPs criticized the UK government for letting sensitive data on official phones be deleted by repeatedly entering the wrong code, a new investigation has found that several departments still allow the practice.
As many as 14 out of 21 central government agencies continue to have the policy, the PA news agency revealed on Monday, citing documents from Freedom of Information requests. Critics have argued that the policy is a way for ministers and bureaucrats to wipe potential evidence – such as text messages and other data – of a scandal.
The number of departments may actually be higher since neither the Ministry of Defence nor the Northern Ireland Office would reveal whether it followed the policy. Four government bodies told the news agency that they did not permit the practice, while one claimed it had no information.
Last year, the House of Commons Treasury Committee told the government to “review its policies” to “prevent the deletion of Government records” after crucial information relating to the high-profile Greensill lobbying scandal, involving former Prime Minister David Cameron, was lost after a phone had been wiped.
In July, the UK Treasury admitted to resetting some 117 of its roughly 2,100 government-issued mobile phones during 2020 – including the work phone of its Permanent Secretary Tom Scholar – after multiple incorrect password entries. Over that period, the Cabinet Office had wiped some 153 phones.
Scholar’s missing phone records were highlighted after it emerged that between March and June 2020, Cameron had lobbied ministers, including Finance Minister Rishi Sunak, and officials for Covid scheme funds to go to the now-defunct financial company Greensill Capital.
In its report, the Commons committee raised concerns about data deletion being a “wider problem” and warned the government that the “wiping of information under these kind of circumstances could have the unfortunate consequence of leading some to suspect it to be deliberate.”
Besides the Treasury department, Cabinet Office, and the Department for Work and Pensions, none of the agencies with the policy recorded exactly how many phones had been wiped, the PA reported.
“Departments have been told this is wrong by the Treasury Select Committee – and you do have to wonder why so many persist,” Jo Maugham, founder of the Good Law Project watchdog group, told the news agency.