(Quin Hillyer, Liberty Headlines) Depending on which source you believe, Washington players from both the pro- and anti-Trump camps are using encrypted apps to hide potentially nefarious doings – while becoming upset that the other side is using encrypted apps.
Advocates of open government, meanwhile, are worried about both sides doing so. The public, they say, has a right to know what its public servants are doing.
All of this comes, of course, against the backdrop of the controversy over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server for at least some official business – which many analysts said cost her the presidential election.
The most prominent story on all this came in The Hill on Feb. 17:
Trump administration staffers are reportedly communicating via an encrypted messaging app called Confide, the main feature of which is self-destructing messages..
Axios originally reported last week that top GOP operatives and aides in the administration have been using the app to communicate out of fear that they might be hacked and have their correspondence made public.
And The Washington Post reported this week that, amid the fallout of national security adviser Michael Flynn’s resignation, White House staffers are using Confide out of fear that President Trump is planning to crack down on leaks to the media.
Even as the Trump Republicans reportedly are using encryption, reports The Hill, House Republicans are “seizing on reports that federal workers are using encrypted messaging apps to avoid being monitored by their supervisors.” So while the House GOP’s White House allies use apps to avoid detection, the House GOP worries about presumably liberal bureaucrats using apps to avoid detection.
C/Net reports that “Some members of Congress are demanding an investigation into the Environmental Protection Agency’s use of texting and encrypted chat apps like Signal… Federal employees with concerns about the impact of President Donald Trump’s administration have turned to encrypted messaging apps, new email addresses and other ways to coordinate their defense strategies.”
So Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who chairs the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, and committee member Darin Lahood (R-Ill.), felt moved “to send a letter to EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins, Jr. asking him to “determine whether it’s appropriate to launch a full-scale review” of EPA workers’ use of encrypted apps.”
The Cointelegraph, meanwhile, runs a story headlined “Deep State Uses Encryption to Subvert Trump Administration.” The ‘Deep State’ is the suddenly popular term for the intelligence community. The publication reports: “Some experts suspect that it exerts control over public policy regardless of which political party is currently in power. Its members from intelligence and high bureaucracy guide policy in their own interests through leaking or other means of internal dissent.”
Since its beginning, the Trump administration has dealt with friction within the government itself. … To deal with this division of priorities in the federal government, federal employees have reportedly turned to encryption to communicate amongst themselves to discuss strategies for resisting White House edicts.
Advocates for open government say this is all worrisome, but that encryption for public employees’ private communications might not run afoul of open-records laws as long as the messages are properly archived. But anything even remotely pertaining to public business, they say, must be available for review.
“It is very straightforward,” Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, told the web publication NextGov. “If you are using a messaging platform—IM, collaborative chat, email, text messaging, Facebook Messenger, ephemeral messaging or encrypted applications—they are all subject to archiving requirements. If you conduct public business using any computing device, a record of messaging you exchange is something that should be archived, period.”
Finally, as government watchdogs insist that government not encrypt electronic communications in ways that interfere with the public’s right to monitor official action, privacy advocates insist that ordinary citizens be able to encrypt private messages without intrusion from government. Law enforcement agencies tend to disagree. As the CoinTelegraph reported:
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has maintained a stance siding with law enforcement on data access matters, coming out against end-to-end encryption and in favor of backdoor access to encrypted apps for law enforcement agencies. Following his initial pick by the Trump administration, downloads for Edward Snowden-endorsed encrypted messaging app Signal saw a rapid increase.
In Europe, the war on encryption is already much further along. The UK passed a law late last year, the Investigatory Powers Bill, which legalized mass surveillance on its citizens.
All of which is an indicator, some say, of how easy it is for rapidly developing technology to outstrip the ability of deliberative democracy to keep up with, and determine rules for, the technology’s use.
America needs to have “an adult conversation” on the pros and cons and uses and abuses of encryption, said FBI Director James Comey in widely covered remarks last summer. “We need to understand in the FBI, how is this exactly affecting our work, and then share that with folks.”
Likewise, say civil libertarians, ordinary “folks” need to make sure that law enforcement understands why privacy from overbearing government also remains important.
As 144 tech firms, civil-liberties organizations, and security experts wrote to then-President Obama in 2015, “Encryption protects billions of people every day against countless threats—be they street criminals trying to steal our phones and laptops, computer criminals trying to defraud us, corporate spies trying to obtain our companies’ most valuable trade secrets” — or, they added, “repressive governments trying to stifle dissent.”