At least sixty EPA employees installed encrypted messaging applications on their government-issued phones and tablets in violation of agency rules, according to newly released documents.
EPA employs installed encrypted apps Signal and WhatsApp, as well as sixteen other messaging applications, on government cell phones, documents obtained by the Cause of Action Institute (COA) show.
Records show EPA employees also installed personal applications, including “email, sports betting, dating, and entertainment applications” that COA says “raise questions about the use of government-issued and taxpayer-funded mobile devices for personal purposes.”
“[I]t appears that most of these applications were never authorized for work-related business,” COA counsel Ryan Mulvey wrote. “To the extent they were used for personal purposes, the EPA should take its workforce to task for abusing the privilege of a government-furnished and taxpayer-funded phone.”
COA began its investigation in 2017 after Politico reported a small group of EPA employees were using the encrypted app Signal to strategize against the Trump administration. Employees reportedly wanted their conversations to be kept secret, sparking transparency concerns.
House Republicans demanded EPA’s Office of Inspector General (IG) investigate the matter and the the National Archives and Records Administration has an open investigation into potential mishandling of records.
EPA investigators did look into the matter and released their findings in a series of memos made public by COA as part of Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits. The IG found two EPA employees had Signal installed on their phones but determined they were not used to “purposefully circumvent the applicable Federal record retention rules.”
Those two employees, however, still violated EPA policy by downloading unapproved applications to government-issued devices, the IG claimed. Investigators also found fifty-eight other EPA employees had government phones with the encrypted messaging app WhatsApp.
Two officials admitted they used the app for “official EPA work,” but more than half of employees the IG’s office interviewed used the app for “the purpose of keeping in touch with family/friends domestically or overseas.”
COA also released a master list of all applications installed on EPA-issued mobile phones. The list indicates hundreds of personnel installed apps for weather, running, AirBnB, Amazon Alexa, games, news and traffic. Employees also installed personal email apps, like Yahoo and Gmail, which raise additional transparency concerns. Two EPA personnel had installed the dating app Tinder on their government devices.
“Whether these platforms were used for personal or work-related purposes, they are problematic and raise issues relating to federal records management,” Mulvey wrote.
“Why should a government employee be able to justify his installation of an unapproved, and legally problematic, application on agency-furnished hardware by claiming that he wanted to use it for personal purposes?” Mulvey added. “Should taxpayers pay for EPA employees to use government data plans to communicate with ‘family and friends?'”
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