Lawmakers Demand Investigation Into EPA Employees Using Encryption Devices


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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Lawmakers asked the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) inspector general to investigate whether employees are using encrypted text messages to avoid transparency laws.

Top Republicans on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology are asking Inspector General Arthur Elkins to look into media reports that a small group of EPA employees were using Signal, an encryption application to “discuss potential strategies against any attempts by newly-appointed political officials to redirect the EPA’s priorities in ways that depart from initiatives spearheaded by Obama Administration appointees.”

Federal employees using Signal or other encryption systems run the risk of violating federal records laws requiring work-related communications to be preserved on government servers.

Lawmakers suggest EPA staffers are trying to avoid being caught by the Trump administration, but in doing so they’d be breaking the law.

“Reportedly, this group of career officials at the EPA are aiming to spread their goals covertly to avoid federal records requirements, while also aiming to circumvent the government’s ability to monitor their communications,” wrote Reps. Lamar Smith of Texas and Darin LaHood of Illinois.

Lawmakers’ letter to Elkins comes after the public interest law firm Cause of Action launched an investigation into EPA’s use of encryption apps.

CoA sent EPA a Freedom of Information Act (FIOA) request asking for all “records created or received by any EPA employee on Signal” and all “records reflecting any permission, clearance, or approval granted to EPA employees by the agency, Archivist and/or the National Archives and Records Administration for the use of Signal, or other instant messaging applications.”

Politico reported earlier this month a small group of EPA staffers started “communicating incognito using the app Signal shortly after Trump’s inauguration.” Apps, like Signal, encrypt communications and make them difficult to monitor or hack.

Attorneys specializing in government records law told The Daily Caller News Foundation the use of encryption programs could violate federal laws if work-related, encrypted communications aren’t preserved.

“Their use of encrypted devices itself is irrelevant,” Chaim Mandelbaum, an attorney and director of the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic, told TheDCNF.

“It is the end product, the communication itself, not the means of delivery that matters. They must send a copy of the communications to the agency’s system,” he said.

EPA has long had problems with employees not preserving records and using private emails to conduct agency business. The agency’s inspector general, for example, found EPA employees only archived 86 text messages out of 3.1 million sent and received in 2015.

“Over the past few years, we have seen several examples of federal officials’ circumventing Federal Records Act requirements and transparency generally,” Smith and LaHood wrote.

Politico also reported Department of Labor employees are using private email accounts to build opposition to Carl’s Jr. CEO Andrew Puzder, President Trump’s pick for labor secretary.

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