Governments need to take record-keeping seriously in the digital age

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Set your WhatsApp messages to auto-delete: foreign spies might be reading them. That’s the advice that GCHQ, the UK’s signals intelligence agency, has given politicians after the British government publicly blamed China for two cyber campaigns against legislators and the country’s electoral watchdog.

Anyone who does business in Britain can be forgiven for a hollow laugh — Morgan Stanley was fined £5.4mn by Ofgem, the energy market regulator, last year for failing to keep records of communications between traders on WhatsApp. GCHQ’s advice would, as it happens, be illegal if followed by Joe Biden or anyone working for the US executive branch, as the amended Presidential Records Act requires a complete copy of any non-official electronic messages to be forwarded to an official account or phone, to facilitate the historical preservation of communications.

Also not enjoying the irony are historians — because politicians’ WhatsApps are part of a broader and deeper problem for archive management and public understanding of records in the digital age.

The internet, and digital technology more broadly, has proved to be a fantastic tool for the sharing of information (and indeed, misinformation). But it is much less effective when it comes to the preservation of information. Of the more than 2bn websites in existence, only around 350mn are actually active. And the “active” includes sites in a form of living death. (My MySpace page, for example, once host to my dreadful mid-teen music taste and my even worse politics, is now just a series of broken links and inaccessible images.)

Almost anyone whose career has lasted longer than a decade will have seen at least part of their work scrubbed from the internet whether by accident or design. Sometimes it doesn’t even take a decade: journalists at the shortlived US media start-up the Messenger have already lost everything they did for the outlet, because its website was taken offline mere hours after they were laid off.

The ephemeral nature of the public internet is mirrored by the fragility of digital record-keeping. The information collected by the BBC Domesday Project, an ambitious undertaking to mark the original Domesday Book’s 900th anniversary back in 1986, is now essentially inaccessible because the technology used is obsolete.

In the UK, future generations will almost certainly have a less complete version of the decisions and conversations that shaped government policy in the 2010s onwards than they do of the governments of Margaret Thatcher, John Major or of Tony Blair, who got his first mobile after leaving office. Although one issue is the deliberate deletion of digital records or the use of devices outside the scope of freedom of information requests, another is the accidental loss of information due to obsolescence or data corruption.

In terms of holding government to account for scandals and failures, that matters less than you might think. Just as in any other workplace, a good way to ensure that there is plenty of contemporaneous record-keeping is for your colleagues to think that they might sooner or later have to allocate or avoid blame. I recently heard of one workplace where the conduct of a senior executive was being investigated by the human resources department. Almost everyone the employee in question had worked with had saved, screenshot or forwarded their messages to use later.

A similar dynamic can be observed in government. An eye-catching feature of the UK’s Covid inquiry has been a series of Conservative politicians offering excuses of varying degrees of plausibility about why, exactly, the inquiry can’t have a complete record of their WhatsApps. Yet because many of their officials and rivals have made extensive notes, they are still being hauled over the coals.

The bigger costs come on ordinary days in government — on successes where we might know what a politician or adviser thought in hindsight, but have a less good idea what they thought at the time.

Fortunately, there are good examples of what governments can do to avoid this problem. The US framework for federal record-keeping, which compels the retention and archiving of a large amount of material, is a good, off-the-shelf model, while in the UK the Institute for Government’s recent proposal that all communication be regularly uploaded and logged is worth considering.

Above all, governments should remember that while nothing beats digital communication for speed and convenience, in terms of permanent record-keeping, paperless archives almost always aren’t worth the paper they’re not printed on.

stephen.bush@ft.com

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