When Police Use Disappearing-Message Apps, It’s Not Just Bad for Accountability — It’s Illegal

In a disturbing trend, government officials and police departments have been thwarting public oversight by using communications apps that automatically delete messages.

The latest example comes from Southern California, where an investigation by Al Jazeera and the ACLU of Southern California revealed last week that the Long Beach Police Department was using an app called TigerText to send self-erasing messages. The department’s effort to subvert transparency appears to have been intentional: Supervisors were instructing officers to use the app whenever they wanted to keep potentially damaging information secret — including in cases of police killings.

Email: Update on TigerText Secure Messaging App

The LBPD’s decision to systematically destroy communications is an outrageous violation of California’s public records laws and the legal obligation to preserve records that could come up both in criminal cases and civil rights lawsuits against the department. And this decision — made by the police department in the city ranked the 13th deadliest in the nation for police killing — is also a glaring example of the mindset of impunity that prevails in some police departments.

Sadly, an interlocking web of structural, legal, and political forces has made meaningful accountability for police misconduct a chimera. Government use of disappearing message technologies only presents yet another roadblock on the way to ever being able to police the police.

When police officers kill a member of the public, they receive an immense amount of resources from their local police unions, including rapid legal assistance. Although police departments technically investigate complaints of officer misconduct, the inquiries are often locked away from public view and result in a staggeringly low number of complaints being sustained against an officer. When presented with clear police misconduct, prosecutors often lack the independence or will to charge officers. Legal rules governing how officers may use force allow enormous discretion to kill. And even when internal personnel proceedings occur, they are often unfair and biased in favor of letting even reckless officers keep their jobs. This is all in spite of an avalanche of research showing that the criminal justice system operates in a fundamentally racist fashion.

Government use of disappearing messaging technologies only adds to the problem. When police officers use self-deleting messages, they diminish the public’s ability to ever fully know about and challenge the government systems they are subject to. It’s only because of a whistleblower that the LBPD scandal ever came to light. After receiving a tip earlier this year, the ACLU filed a public records request seeking information about LBPD’s use of TigerText. In response, we received documents confirming that the police department was using the disappearing-message app for “criminal investigations and confidential communication.”

While the LBPD’s use of TigerText was kept secret for years, after news of it broke last week, the fallout was swift, reflecting the severity of the scandal. The same afternoon, the department announced that it would suspend use of the application. The ACLU subsequently sent a letter demanding that the department permanently stop using disappearing-message apps and calling for an investigation into its use of TigerText. The department responded by announcing an independent review by an outside firm, and Los Angeles County prosecutors that handle police misconduct are also investigating.

How Long Beach got to this point provides a compelling reminder of the difficulty of attaining meaningful accountability from the government. While it may come as no surprise that government actors have attempted to hide their operations from public scrutiny throughout history, today, apps like TigerText, Snapchat, Confide, and Wickr take the possibilities to the next level. Through those services, users can set messages to automatically delete after a certain amount of time. The disgraced former governor of Missouri, Eric Greitens, used Confide to trade messages with his staff in violation of public open records laws, resulting in a lawsuit. In 2017, Trump administration officials reportedly downloaded the same application to exchange messages.

As the ACLU explained in a Freedom of Information Act request seeking more information about the use of such applications by federal employees, such apps can help protect privacy and enable free speech when private individuals use them — but when government actors rely on them to conduct government business, it means the public is unlawfully kept in the dark.

The public needs to know how widely police officers use these apps to evade accountability — and we are working to find out. Through our public records request to LBPD, we learned that that department was spending about $10,000 annually for TigerText. Officers from the department said in public statements that they are aware of other departments that use similar technology, though they would not disclose specifics.

Invoice

Police departments are notoriously secretive about the technologies they purchase and use on the streets, but we hope public records requests will continue to uncover the government’s misuse of disappearing-message apps. In the meantime, companies like TigerConnect, the company behind TigerText, should disclose what government agencies they have already sold this feature to, and government actors should discontinue its use. Self-destructing messages have no place in a transparent government.

View comments (17)
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Anonymous

Read for comprehension

Anonymous

While there are numerous, arguably countless, law enforcement agencies that utilize disappearing-message apps such as TigerText, it should be noted that an increasing number of departments have been evaluating and procuring technologies that encourage transparency by capturing and archiving text messages from officers cell phones. The unfortunate reality is, there hasn't been enough of a public outcry demanding that these technologies be utilized and, because of that, departments have been able to utilize these subversive and secretive technologies with questionable intentions.

Anonymous

Another ACLU issue needing action: under the Citizens United ruling, there are "corporate citizens" subjected to unequal treatment by government agencies. If you research automobile manufacturers and their CEOs back to the 1970's, it's clear that Tesla Motors and Elon Musk are receiving unequal treatment in violation of the 14th Amendment. One of the government's preferred corporate citizens - Tesla's competitor - conspired with an oil industry "corporate citizen" to dismantle the San Francisco streetcar system. Others preferred by the government received a slap on the wrist for willful negligence leading to automobile deaths. Why is Tesla and Musk receiving such a disproportionate and harsh punishment? Why does the Citizens United ruling only work in favor of the government's preferrred corporate citizens?

Anonymous

Thank you ACLU for taking action against this corrupt organization, its hard to rap your heard around how much incriminating information has be destroyed in the 4 years it has been in use. how many innocent people have been put in jail or how many innocent have been kill by corrupt officer. Why are these police administers still working there. I hope these people are fired along with these city administers. The truth must come out. thank you again.

Anonymous

When was the last time the ACLU defended the 2nd amendment? Many of the claims in this article are questionable at best, and unprovable at worst. Where was the ACLU during Clinton’s email scandal? Why does the ACLU only seem to champion left wing causes?

Anonymous

To what are you referring to? How is HRC’s email investigation even related to disappearing text technology? The FBI even said there was no criminal intent. One moment you claim their conclusions are invalid and in the next you criticize them for not investigating a crime that doesn’t exist.

AnonymousReynaldo

The police department are using technology to block cellphone call and text messages.they interacting phone calls.and they block internet service.its this tape of technology legal. They instal camera s in the community infrared.they are using airplanes and helicopters with camera's infrared.jets with technology they can see tru walls.they are violating civilians privacy.they are looking for any excuse to incriminate people.they are doing racial profiling.tjey are abusing there power.we need one government agency independently in charge to investigate this tape of cases.you report this to the police department.but they cover for each other.where are the justice.make the accountable not the taxes payers.we need to stop this abuse.

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