The British military has banned WhatsApp over fears that Russia could hack into the platform to acquire operationally sensitive information.
All personnel, from senior officers to junior soldiers, must stop using the telephone messaging service for business purposes or face disciplinary action.
A Ministry of Defense document confirming the ban last night said there were “significant security concerns” around the use of WhatsApp.
The order, which takes effect immediately, comes after the Daily Mail reported over the weekend that Russia was using British mobile phone data to select targets for airstrikes in Ukraine.
‘Targeted by the Kremlin’: The British military has banned all its staff from WhatsApp over fears Russia could hack into the platform to acquire sensitive information.
A cruise missile attack last Sunday on a training camp for foreign fighters, which left 35 dead and 134 injured, was launched after British numbers apparently ‘switched on’ a Ukrainian telephone network covering the base.
Senior government ministers may now come under increased pressure to stop using WhatsApp for official business.
The prime minister, defense secretary, foreign minister and interior minister all use the platform, and their communications may have been targeted by the Kremlin.
Last night WhatsApp insisted its ‘end-to-end encryption’ system was secure and governments could not intercept personal messages and calls.
But security sources said British and US intelligence agents intercepted WhatsApp calls and located message senders for national security purposes. It is considered highly likely that Russia has acquired the same capability.
Remarkably, given these serious security concerns, Boris Johnson is believed to use WhatsApp regularly.
In 2020, he was criticized for claiming to have spoken to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman through the platform.
The official MoD document seen by the Daily Mail states: “Direction: Due to significant security concerns, all Field Army personnel should immediately stop using WhatsApp for work-related communications.
“WhatsApp should only ever be used as a method of last resort defined as: a means of communication that should only be used in circumstances where failure to comply would result in death, serious injury or operational compromise.”
The ban covers voice calls and messaging. Troops have been recommended to use an alternative chat and messaging service called Signal, which is said to provide enhanced security features and is favored by the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).
Smoke is visible above buildings near the airport. The mayor of Lviv said on Telegram that the airport was not hit, but an area nearby.
People look at the damage at a school which was hit by a Russian attack ten days ago.
Conversations on Signal are not backed up or stored, reducing the risk of message access.
The MoD document continues: “Alternative: signal may be used for work-related messaging and voice calls up to OFFICIAL [a security rating for the information] only. Signal is free to download. It can also be used as a desktop application and offers similar functionality to WhatsApp.’
Owned by Facebook parent company Meta, WhatsApp is one of the world’s most popular messaging apps with around two billion users.
It was fined £200million in 2021 for a lack of transparency over its handling of users’ personal information and data sharing with other Facebook companies.
Last night, its director of communications, Alison Bonny, said: “WhatsApp protects your personal messages and calls with the industry-leading Signal protocol for end-to-end encryption. They cannot therefore be intercepted by any government.
The Mail revealed on Saturday how Russia selects targets in Ukraine based on phone data its agents have collected in Britain.
Officers from Moscow’s military intelligence division, the GRU, visited some of Britain’s most sensitive military sites – including SAS headquarters – and recorded data when the devices were turned on.
Ukrainian soldiers (top) stand guard on a bridge in front of a damaged Russian army car on the road east of the Ukrainian capital of kyiv.
A view shows buildings damaged by an airstrike, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues.
The database compiled by the Kremlin is now being matched against international numbers that appear on Ukrainian mobile phone networks.
According to an urgent security advisory shared between former SBS and SAS members, the appearance of two such numbers in any location could trigger a missile attack.
The threat of Russian espionage and intelligence gathering following the invasion of Ukraine is of growing concern.
Last week, an alleged Russian agent was able to arrange a ten-minute video call with Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, after misleading British officials he was Ukraine’s prime minister.
Last night the MoD said: “Alternative messaging apps may be more suitable for work-related communication due to different types of security settings.
“We are not asking staff to remove WhatsApp from their work phones and the advice is not related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”