In a letter to the District of Columbia inspector general, lawmakers urged a thorough review of the use of encrypted messaging apps by Mayor Muriel Bowser’s staff.
Members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which has legislative jurisdiction over the District of Columbia, have called on the city’s inspector general to review the use of encrypted messaging applications to circumvent public records laws by Mayor Muriel Bowser and her staff.
The Bowser administration came under scrutiny earlier this year after reports surfaced that WhatsApp was widely used across city government. Nine current and former staffers within the mayor’s inner circle reported to Axios that the app had been used for both official matters and internal communications.
The D.C. Council introduced an emergency measure on March 1 to control the use of encrypted messaging services, but “it is unclear if this proposal will remedy the problem,” the lawmakers said in a March 14 letter to D.C. Inspector General Daniel Lucas. They pressed for a review that would determine to what extent the software was used to skirt records retention rules and Freedom of Information Act requests.
“Messages sent by city employees through private text messaging services like WhatsApp are not necessarily preserved and cannot be searched for to respond to corresponding FOIA requests and other legal demands. This is in direct violation of FOIA requirements,” the letter said.
As the letter also noted, this is not a new issue. The D.C. government’s use of WhatsApp has been publicly known since 2010. In 2012, the D.C. Council refused to turn over communications that has been sent through personal email accounts.
“The lack of transparency regarding Mayor Bowser’s WhatsApp messages raises questions about why the Mayor is attempting to hide certain communications,” the letter said.
Other communities have also faced challenges with encrypted messaging apps. A 2021 Washington Post article reported Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan regularly used Wickr to communicate with state employees in electronic chatrooms. In Michigan, the Detroit Free Press reported high-ranking state police officials used the Signal app to communicate on government-issued phones.
In response, Maryland lawmakers introduced a measure designed to set policies for how long various types of official records must be kept. In November, the Michigan Senate unanimously approved a bill that would effectively ban the use of encrypted apps on official government electronic devices.
The House committee members told the D.C. inspector general that he has until March 21 to notify them about what actions will be taken.