A former UK national security adviser on Friday said the widespread availability of Boris Johnson’s personal mobile phone number could pose a risk after it was reported that the prime minister’s contact details have been online since 2006.
The website Popbitch revealed on Thursday evening that a press release sent when Johnson was MP for Henley and shadow higher education minister encouraged journalists to contact him on his office number or his personal mobile number.
The statement containing the number was available online as of Thursday, the site reported, and Sky News said it was the number still being used by Johnson as prime minister.
Lord Peter Ricketts said access to the prime minister was a “very valuable commodity”, warning that if Johnson was still using the number published online, “then hundreds if not thousands of people must have access to it”.
“If his mobile phone number has been that widely available, you can’t rule out that others who you really don’t want to have his number, like hostile states with sophisticated cyber capabilities or criminal gangs, may have it as well,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“That is the risk you run if you don’t take care of your digital security in the same way as your physical security when you are prime minister,” he said.
One security veteran told the Financial Times that for a high profile target such as the prime minister, even a new number would become compromised relatively quickly.
So while changing numbers frequently may reduce the risk, the bigger concern within Whitehall is how Johnson is using his phone: the security of the apps he’s got and whether he’s using unencrypted systems to discuss government work.
Downing Street declined to comment but Victoria Atkins, Home Office minister, rejected suggestions that Johnson was not taking issues of national security seriously.
“The prime minister, more than anyone, knows his responsibilities when it comes to national security,” she told Times Radio on Friday.
“The moment any prime minister walks through that door for the first time they are given national security briefings. This is an extraordinary responsibility that he has to bear and he’s fully aware of his responsibilities in that regard.”
Labour said the revelation highlighted issues surrounding access to senior government officials.
“I think a lot of people will be concerned not just about who’s got the number but who’s been using it, because what’s come out in recent weeks is privileged access – those that can WhatsApp the prime minister for favours,” said party leader Sir Keir Starmer on Friday.
“This all is further evidence that there’s essentially one rule for them and another rule for everybody else,” he said, adding that he changed his number after becoming director of public prosecutions. “I’ve kept my number secure since then.”
The revelation follows opposition parties becoming increasingly concerned about lobbying in Whitehall and unofficial communication between senior business leaders and Downing Street officials.
Speaking at the House of Lords constitution committee on Monday, former cabinet secretaries Lord Mark Sedwill and Lord Gus O’Donnell warned that there needed to be clearer guidance for ministers that outlined the importance of keeping records of official conversations, particularly taking into account the changing methods of communication within government.
“In my day, whenever a minister was talking to someone in an official capacity, there was nearly always a civil servant on the line and there would be a record of the phone call. This was just the normal,” O’Donnell told peers.
“Clearly I think we do need to be thinking about how to keep pace with the way in which people operate, the increasing use of encrypted messaging services, for example, the greater use of mobile phones.”
This month, The Telegraph reported that the head of the civil service, Simon Case, had advised Johnson to change his mobile phone number amid concerns that his current number was too widely known.