The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been the focus of investigations and concern regarding the possibility of employees there attempting to thwart new policies of the Trump administration.
Information has been released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to a law firm— the “Cause of Action Institute”.
The organization has recently released an update on the results of the investigation regarding EPA employees and whether and how they have been using a phone application that could be used for transmitting encrypted information.
Searching for the “Signal” Application on EPA Phones
The FOIA request was related to activities associated with the “Deep State.” Signal is an encryption program for messages. It uses the Internet to send one-to-one and group messages, including images and video messages. It can also be used for making one-to-one voice and video calls. This is the same program which concerned the House Committee in asking for an investigation.
The FOIA request from Cause of Action requested information, including the following:
- All records created or received by any EPA employee on Signal.
- All records concerning EPA efforts to retrieve, recover, or retain records created or received by EPA employees on Signal.
- In its response, the EPA stated that records created or received by its employees on “Signal,” and records concerning efforts “to retrieve, recover, or retain” those messages, were “part of one or more open law enforcement file(s).”
According to the Cause of Action organization, an EPA contractor “scanned” cell phones and other similar devices provided to employees by the agency. The scan was to determine applications installed by employees on the devices.
The scanning process, which was requested by the Inspector General’s (IG) office for the agency, was conducted with a software tool known as “Mobile Device Management,” or “MDM.” As part of an FOIA lawsuit, the EPA disclosed that contractor-generated report and other related documents.
Results of the Investigation
The IG concluded that the Signal application was not used to “purposefully circumvent the applicable Federal record retention rules.” The IG investigation did find that two employees—one in the Office of the Inspector General and the other in the Office of the Science Advisor—violated EPA’s policy by downloading the unapproved application.
In each instance, the IG interviewed the employee and concluded that no “discernible crime” was committed. The employee in the Office of Inspector General had downloaded Signal “to see if there was a suitable law enforcement purpose for the application.”
The employee in the Office of the Science Advisor denied having the application which was no longer installed on the employee’s phone. There was no explanation as to how the application had been installed on the phone.
Wide Variety of Electronic Messaging & Social Apps Found on EPA Phones
While investigating the use of the Signal application, the investigation revealed that fifty-eight employees had downloaded another encrypted messaging application called “WhatsApp.” The fifty-eight employees were asked about their “motivation and intent” for downloading WhatsApp. Most of the employees cited a “lack of clarity” in the agency’s policy for not installing unapproved applications.
More than half of these employees indicated they used WhatsApp for “the purpose of keeping in touch with family/friends domestically or overseas.” EPA investigators interviewed each employee who had the app on an agency provided phone and the agents reviewed the conversations within the phone application. Two employees admitted to using the application for agency business.
The investigation also revealed that at least sixteen other applications with electronic messaging capabilities were being used by EPA employees.
Overall, the agency indicated in a 96 page listing that a large number of applications were being used on EPA phones for purposes ranging from sports betting, games, dating sites, and personal finance sites to a variety of shopping and social media applications. Here is the 96 page listing of the apps found on employee phones at EPA.
As far as can be determined from the information provided in the documents summarized by the Cause of Action Institute, no earth shaking results were identified regarding EPA employees providing confidential information to people outside of the agency. The most significant conclusion of the investigation is probably the IG’s conclusion that the Signal app was not used to “purposefully circumvent the applicable Federal record retention rules.”
The investigation indicates there have not been any effective restrictions within the agency on how employees use the government provided phones for personal interest purposes. There is at least a “lack of clarity” on the use of the wide variety of apps on government phones. How dating apps, sports betting programs, or gaming programs such as “Candy Crush” relate to the business of a federal agency is not apparent. It is very unlikely that EPA employees are different than employees in other federal agencies in using their government phones to pursue similar personal interests. How an agency would effectively control this issue or if trying to control it is worth the time and expense is not obvious.
After the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s requested that the EPA Inspector General analyze allegations reported in the press, the National Archives and Records Administration (“NARA”) opened its own inquiry into the potential violation of federal records management laws. That inquiry remains open.