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Use of the encrypted messaging app by Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration rekindles discussion over apps that allow officials to skirt the spirit, if not the letter, of open records laws.
The Washington, D.C. Council unanimously approved an emergency measure on March 1 to regulate government employees’ communications via WhatsApp, after an Axios report confirmed Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s staff has been using the encrypted messaging app to conduct public business.
Apps such as WhatsApp, Wickr, Telegram, Signal and others have risen in popularity recently, thanks to their ability to protect sensitive communications from cyber criminals and malicious hackers; however, open records watchdogs say the apps allow government officials to sidestep transparency obligations.
Unlike physical paperwork or emails sent over government servers, messages sent through WhatsApp and similar services are not automatically preserved as public records. Furthermore, these apps often have built-in features that delete conversations after a certain period of time. Without manually sending a copy, or providing screenshots of text exchanges, users can delete their conversations, leaving no record of the exchange for the public record.
The apps make it easier to hide official communications from Freedom of Information Act requests, critics say, and could allow officials to skirt the spirit, if not the letter, of open-records laws.
In November, the Michigan Senate approved a bill to ban the use of such apps on government-issued phones after the Detroit Free Press reported high-ranking state police officials were using the Signal app to communicate.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan came under fire last year as well, after a report from The Washington Post revealed that he has long communicated with state employees in Wickr's electronic chatrooms, which destroy conversations within 24 hours. In response, Maryland lawmakers introduced the Transparency in Public Records Act, designed to set policies for how long different types of official records must be kept.
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