Lawsuit demands EPA say if employees using encrypted messages to evade open-records laws
A conservative watchdog group filed an open-records request with the EPA on Thursday demanding the agency explain whether its employees are using encrypted messaging apps to communicate about President Trump’s environmental agenda outside of regular government channels.
Cause of Action filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request after Politico reported that some career employees are using an app, Signal, to talk agency business.
The app, which encrypts messages to make it more difficult to hack, is being used by the employees “to organize letters, talk strategy, or contact media outlets,” Politico reported.
Cause of Action said those communications are still subject to the FOIA, and the Environmental Protection Agency employees talking shop are required to store the messages as government documents.
The watchdog said it has demanded all records EPA employees sent or received on Signal, as well as asking who approved use of messaging apps.
“Those are official government records. They belong to the public. They don’t belong to those people. They need to be reserved in a manner, so that they can be searched and responded to FOIA requests,” said James Valvo, senior policy adviser at Cause of Action.
He said the government doesn’t do a good job of tracking and storing texts or other instant messages sent by staffers.
“Part of the problem here is that the record resides often with the individual,” Mr. Valvo said.
He said text messages are often saved only on the device, so an individual has the ability to erase them.
He also said that certain types of instant messaging systems do not preserve the messages over the long term.
Lauren Harper, the communications director at the National Security Archive, said she is unsure how many agencies are actually adhering to the record keeping guidelines for electronic messages.
“If you consider that three agencies said they wouldn’t even meet NARA guidelines on preserving email by the end of last year, then my hunch is many are struggling with preserving these other kinds of electronic records,” Ms. Harper said.