United Kingdom

British Members of Parliament Do All Their Sneaky Plotting on WhatsApp

But they would prefer to be able to snoop on civilians who use the encrypted chat app.


If you were to design a building optimized for gossip, plotting, and general skulduggery, it would look at lot like the Palace of Westminster. Beyond the green benches of the House of Commons is a neo-gothic labyrinth with no shortage of nooks and crannies in which British members of Parliament can conduct some of the less salubrious aspects of the job.

If you were to build an app for the same conspiratorial duties, it would probably look a lot like WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned encrypted messaging service. Like British M.P.s and their advisers who scuttle around Westminster, WhatsApp's users can pontificate to large groups one minute and have a discreet one-on-one conversation the next. And, as with the list of affiliations and allegiances that any politician must carefully navigate, a WhatsApp user's homepage is a list of overlapping group chats and friendships on which they are never more than a few finger taps away from saying the wrong thing to the wrong people.

And so, unlikely pairing though it may seem, it is really no surprise that London's political class has fallen hard for the app in recent years. WhatsApp now plays a part in the vast majority of Westminster mischief-making, of which there has been a lot recently.

In fact, the political turbulence that has been the new normal in British politics ever since the U.K. voted to leave the E.U. in 2016 has only encouraged the political class's WhatsApp use. Frayed tempers after yet another late-night vote on Brexit can be soothed with a few taps on a phone screen. And a few taps later, the plotting can begin again.

Loyalties among British Parliamentarians are exceptionally fluid these days. The Conservative Party is deeply divided over Britain's departure from the E.U., and WhatsApp has become the unofficial channel through which the various factions organize and whip as de facto parties within a party. How to vote, what to say, and what not to say––all of it is broadcast instantly. The same is true on the other side of the chamber. A WhatsApp group called "the birthday" was used to organize a failed coup against the Labour Party's far-left leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2016, while his most loyal supporters in the media reportedly discuss lines to take on television and radio in a group of their own.

One of the many ironies of Westminster's penchant for WhatsApp is just how many leaks emanate from a platform built on end-to-end encryption. The problem isn't with the technology, but the politicians using it. Screenshots of conversations regularly make their way to journalists' phones—in part because group administrators aren't always vigilant about who is in a given group. An M.P. can fall out with a particular faction and still lurk in a WhatsApp chat, keeping an eye on what their former allies are up to. Sometimes the leaks offer a peek at what a politician really thinks about a given issue. At least as often, M.P.s post messages with the express intention of that message being leaked. Comments reported as posts in a secret WhatsApp group are instantly more interesting than those sent out as a tweet or in a press release; a deliberate WhatsApp leak has become a way for a cunning M.P. to get more coverage than they otherwise merit.

Leaks notwithstanding, WhatsApp's confidentiality is undoubtedly part of its appeal to elected representatives in the U.K.—a country where the app's use in general is more widespread than in the United States. Encryption means that the source of a leak must be someone with access to a given conversation.

Chatting on the app, rather than over email, also makes it less likely that government ministers will get into trouble for what they say about official business. Legislation passed in 2000 means that Brits can request information on a range of issues from public bodies. Unsurprisingly, politicians don't especially like it when these rights are exercised. WhatsApp isn't technically immune from these freedom of information requests, but encrypted messages are harder to keep track of and if someone doesn't know a group exists, it is difficult for them to successfully request information from it.

And that brings us to the biggest irony of Westminster's WhatsApp habit: the gap between what politicians do and what they say when it comes to privacy. The same government whose ministers conduct plenty of business on WhatsApp has passed legislation that requires companies to store a record of the websites everyone has visited in the last 12 months, allows the police and security services access to those records without a warrant, and, more generally, gives the state unprecedented general powers for communications interception.

One thing it has so far failed to do is gain access to end-to-end encrypted messages like those sent on WhatsApp. Not for want of trying. After the terrorist attack in Westminster in 2017, it transpired that the attacker had used WhatsApp. The then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd described it as "completely unacceptable" that the government could not access these messages.

But her attempted crackdown didn't get very far, not least because it revealed an ignorance of how WhatsApp works. Breaking encryption for one person would mean breaking encryption for everyone. WhatsApp doesn't have access to its users' messages. As the app's many users in Parliament should know, that's the point.