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THE inner circle of Malcolm Turnbull’s government has been grilled on its use of messaging service WhatsApp to communicate and share potentially sensitive information.
Despite the intense scrutiny of the practice during a Senate estimates hearing Monday the prime minister’s department has not taken any action over reports Malcolm Turnbull and government ministers potentially jeopardised sensitive data by using the messaging service to conduct cabinet business.
Labor says the use of the app treats government security with contempt. But Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet deputy secretary Elizabeth Kelly told the Senate estimates hearing this afternoon the issue had not been followed up because the prime minister had made “numerous public statements about the appropriate use of this”.
The grilling comes after experts warned the use of the popular messaging service to conduct cabinet affairs could pose a security risk for the Australian government.
“The headache for government is that this is a platform that rests outside government’s purview and that therefore poses some security risks,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute cyber security expert Dr Tobias Feakin told Fairfax Media.
WhatsApp was purchased by Facebook in a US$19 billion deal two years ago and shares user information with the social media giant.
A recent privacy update included end-to-end encryption on all messages, designed to ensure the information is not able to be hacked or monitored but experts warned there is still security dangers involved with using the service.
Malcolm Turnbull and others, including chiefs of staff and media advisers, have been using the application for confidential discussions instead of more secure platforms.
Cyber security experts have flagged issues with its use, noting it had not been approved by the country’s cyber intelligence agency — the Australian Signals Directorate.
Last week Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus called on the Liberal MPs to immediately stop using the messaging service to conduct cabinet business.
“They are treating security with contempt,” he told ABC Radio on Thursday. He suggested the app was being used to avoid any obligations under the Freedom of Information Act.
When asked if freedom of information laws could apply to the WhatsApp messages, the government was unsure.
Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Cyber Security, Alastair MacGibbon, told the estimates hearing Monday that he communicated with the PM via the app but never discussed anything of import or public sensitivity.
It was a claim echoed by Attorney-General George Brandis. However the nation’s top lawyer became very coy when asked by Labor senator Penny Wong to export the message history and provide it to the estimates committee as proof.
“So it’s entirely unremarkable but you don’t want it exposed to the public,” Senator Wong said to an unresponsive Mr Brandis.
Crossbench senators Nick Xenophon and David Leyonhjelm said last week they had also messaged the prime minister using WhatsApp.
“What do you want the prime minister to do, use smoke signals, telepathy?” Senator Xenophon said.
“I think WhatsApp is a reasonable form of communication and safer than others, but I’d like to think the prime minister is smart enough to realise he’s not going to be giving any state secrets over anything that isn’t sufficiently encrypted.”
For many the issue is nothing more than a storm in a teacup. But digital information security has become absolutely paramount for government officials in the age of cyber warfare.
And judging by the hysteria and domestic outrage in the US over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server, the way in which politicians choose to communicate will become an increasingly public issue.