Is it illegal to share private WhatsApp messages in the UK?

MESSAGING giant WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption to keep your chats secure.

People can still take screenshots of your answers, but is it illegal to share private messages? Here’s everything you need to know.

Is It Illegal to Share Private WhatsApp Messages?

WhatsApp has become such a part of our personal and professional lives that it’s easy to forget how much information we share with others online.

This is fine for people you trust, and the use of end-to-end encryption on the platform means it’s a fairly secure means of communication.

But the app doesn’t currently prevent users from taking screenshots like banking apps do, for example.

That means it’s possible to scan conversations and share them elsewhere as a still image.


Is sharing private screenshots with others illegal? The answer is quite complex

But is that a crime? The answer is quite complicated.

According to Iain Wilson, partner at trade media and litigator Brett Wilson LLP, this could constitute a criminal offense in certain circumstances, such as when the messages were received without authorization (eg, logging into another person’s account without their permission).

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“This could constitute a criminal offense under the Computer Misuse Act 1990,” says Iain. “A criminal offense may also be committed under the Protection Against Harassment Act 1997 if the private information is used in the context of ‘conduct’.

“Behaviour” refers to an act that occurs more than once in a year and has an ongoing purpose to cause significant suffering.

The maximum sentence for the first offense is two years, for the second six months.

Sharing private information from a message could also lead to abuse of the right to private information if the court rules that the subject has “reasonable expectations of privacy.”

You could even be held liable if you inadvertently disclose confidential information to the wrong person, and the claimant would not have to prove that you maliciously disclosed the material.

“A successful plaintiff would be entitled to damages/compensation for (a) loss of control over their private information and (b) any harm/injury to feelings they suffered,” says Iain.

“They would also be entitled to seek an injunction (sometimes referred to in the press as a ‘gag order’) prohibiting further disclosure of information.”

A judge decides on a factual basis whether information can be considered “private” or not.

Trivial information such as the fact that a person’s bank account is overdrawn or that they have had chickenpox is unlikely to be considered sufficient to warrant a claim.

Iain says that while claims do exist, they are fairly rare because it costs so much to initiate civil proceedings.

Why is it illegal to share a screenshot of a private conversation?

The illegality of sharing screenshots is determined by the above factors.

Sharing screenshots could raise a claim if you violate privacy, receive material without permission, or if the material is used to cause harassment.

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Iain advises anyone who has received private information not to share it without the sender’s consent.

This applies to various means of communication, not just WhatsApp.

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