The grave risks of text messaging for public agencies

Software glitch blamed for missing FBI texts

An unexplained software misconfiguration was responsible for missing texts between two FBI employees working in Robert Mueller's Special Counsel Office who exchanged texts disparaging then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and other political figures, the FBI told the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General.

Both Peter Strzok and Lisa Page  had substantial gaps in retention of work-related texts from their FBI-issued mobile devices covering periods of time they worked on the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server and in the early days of the special counsel investigation.  A forensic probe into a database unearthed thousands of texts messages from Strzok and Page's Samsung Galaxy S5 and S7 devices. The vast majority of these messages were between the two, and the total number includes many duplicates.

According to a report released Dec. 13, the FBI began phasing out use of the Samsung S5 in 2017 precisely because the automated application used to wirelessly collect text messages from bureau-issued mobile devices was experiencing "software and other issues that prevented the data collection tool from reliably capturing" all texts. The FBI estimated the collection tool's failure rate was 20 percent for the Samsung S5s.

As of Nov. 15, the FBI's data collection tool was still not reliably collecting texts from approximately 10 percent of FBI issued mobile devices, including Samsung S7s and subsequently issued S9s, according to the inspector general's report.

The reason for the failure is unclear, though IT analysts told auditors that there are a range of possible explanations, such as a bug in the software affecting text message retention that wasn't patched by the vendor until March 2017, misconfiguration during the initial installation, interference caused by software updates and hardware errors.

House Republicans held hearings over the Strzok-Page texts in the summer of 2018, and used their content to allege that the special counsel investigation was motivated by partisan politics.

Investigators doubt that Strzok and Page could have suppressed text messages on their own. To do so, they would need root access to their devices and administrator access, which is typically confined to a staffer working on device administration or security.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at djohnson@fcw.com, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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