“If you send a text message to someone saying let’s do this, then it’s a record which should be maintained,” Mr Hehir said.

“The issue for the parliament and the executive at some point is going to be whether those types of communication channels are allowed. If they don’t create a record and records are required then how can you actually allow the use of those types of communication channels within executive government is a question, I would have thought.”

Deputy Auditor-General Rona Mellor said departments were increasingly relying on “unstructured data”, especially emails, to keep records and often could not find specific information themselves when auditors requested access.

“Rather than being neatly filed back in the day where it would end up in a compactor and whatever, these days … we’re having to take terabytes of Outlook from entities, by name, and bring it into our forensic analysis systems … because so much is unstructured and free text,” she said.

Mr Hehir said the extent auditors were having to dive into bureaucratic email accounts had led them to question how far they needed to start examining text messages.

Texts were relatively easy to access but other technologies could be more challenging depending what each user’s settings were.

The issue of whether WhatsApp and other encrypted messages are maintained and can be accessed under Freedom of Information laws has been regularly canvassed in Senate estimates hearings.

In October 2019, officials from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet told senators they used WhatsApp to communicate with the Prime Minister’s office and Signal to talk with departmental colleagues, but didn’t know what settings they had in place relating to automatic deletion of messages. But by October this year, one of the same officials said, “I don’t use WhatsApp anymore for that purpose.”

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