In what’s likely to be a Freedom of Information first – they’re few and far between – messages sent through WhatsApp have been released after they were requested.
In Ireland, media group RTÉ News was provided with transcripts of a group conversation on the Facebook-owned app where Brexit was being discussed. The names of the group members were redacted for personal privacy reasons but the contents of the messages can be seen to be discussing media reactions to the referendum result.
The FOI request was made to the Department of Taoiseach, which is the department of the prime minister, after the existence of a WhatsApp group was revealed in a previous news report. The messaging group was comprised of “government departments and agencies”.
The FOI Act in Ireland came into force in April 1998 – seven years before the laws in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland were enacted.
The Irish Act has been amended several times, with one controversial change (which, has been partly withdrawn now) introducing fees for requests. Once the charge was introduced requests declined by 42%.
In the UK it is theoretically possible to get WhatsApp messages under the FOI Act. Information covered by the UK’s Act includes any official information held for the purposes of a public authority’s (government, NHS, councils etc) work.
Section 84 of the FOI legislation defines information as being possible to be “recorded in any form”. The Information Commissioner’s Office says: “official information recorded on mobile devices, including text messages on mobile phones, or in any other media, may also be considered to be held on behalf of the public authority in the circumstances outlined in this guidance”.
Information of a party political nature or private use of messaging services/emails/etc are not covered by the act.
If you have any other examples of FOI requests releasing messages from WhatsApp or mobile phones please do let me know.