Above Photo: Flickr/ John Yesko
Every new President brings a wave of change to D.C., but the first two weeks of the Trump administration have been busier and more controversial than usual — to put it very mildly. While much attention has been paid to the public response to the White House’s newest tenant, there are federal employees who can’t be so vocal about their concerns, particularly when chatting over government-supplied devices. That’s why some federal staffers are turning to new encryption technologies to keep their discussions away from unwanted scrutiny.
Politico reports today that across agencies, some federal employees are seriously stepping up their tech security game.
A “small group of career employees” at the EPA, for example, has started using an app called Signal to share discussions amongst themselves.
Signal, like Facebook-owned behemoth WhatsApp, uses end-to-end encryption to keep the content of messages secret to everyone who isn’t sending or receiving them (including itself). But for folks who are strongly privacy-minded, Signal has the advantage because it masks more of your metadata as well.
The metadata you generate when you communicate with people — data about your communication, rather than the content of your communication — can be detailed and valuable to law enforcement or anyone else who wants to build a case.
For example, if you send a text message using your regular phone’s messaging app, that leaves a trail: You sent a text 12 KB in size to John Doe at 1:23 p.m. on Friday, August 26, 2016, then received one from him three minutes later.
That data can be telling, and adds up into large patterns about who is contacting whom, even if the content of a message isn’t shared. That’s why the NSA collected so much of it.
Signal, however says that texts and calls made within its app pretty much don’t leave that behind for anyone to grab. “Because your phone will be connecting to Signal’s servers, your cellular carrier can determine whether or not you are using the service,” the company writes in an FAQ. “However, your carrier cannot gather any information about the individuals or groups with whom you are communicating.”
“I have no idea where this is going to go. I think we’re all just taking it one day at a time and respond in a way that seems appropriate and right,” one employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Politico.
At another agency, the Department of Labor, employees are using Google Docs and mutual agreements to keep individual dissenters jobs’ safe, Politico reports. Using private email accounts, some current and former Labor employees are sending around a link to a letter asking Senators to oppose the nomination of Andrew Puzder to be their new boss. Only if more than 200 people sign on to the letter will it be sent and made public, Politico says.
Employees at various agencies have also started having more face-to-face chats, Politico reports — an old-fashioned but very effective way not to leave a paper (or pixel