Border Patrol’s use of encrypted app that can automatically delete messages is a very bad idea

Border Patrol’s use of encrypted app that can automatically delete messages is a very bad idea

The former Border Patrol agent who in August 2019 pleaded guilty after intentionally hitting a Guatemalan man with his truck and then lying about it to investigators used text messages to call migrants “disgusting subhuman shit unworthy of being kindling for a fire” and “mindless murdering savages.” Not only did Matthew Bowen’s attorney seek to block these sort of messages from court, he defended his client’s racism by claiming “use of such words is commonplace in the Tucson, Arizona sector.” What an argument.

So does anyone outside of these agents and their defenders truly believe they should be allowed to use encrypted apps that have capability to automatically erase messages? No, but it’s happening anyway—and under federal contract.

RELATED STORY: Border agent who complained about ‘murdering savages’ pleads guilty to hitting migrant with truck

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is facing at least two inquiries into the agency’s use of the Amazon-owned Wickr app, “known for its ability to automatically delete messages,” NBC News reports. Last October, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) issued a letter to CBP’s Senior Agency Official for Records Management expressing concern “about the use of this messaging application as it has the capability to auto-delete messages after a specified period of time has passed.”

Then this week, watchdog organization CREW filed a lawsuit after CBP failed to respond to a records request into the app. 

“CBP has a notorious record of human rights abuses and exposed texts from CBP agents show an environment of racism and cruelty within the agency,” the organization said. “It is alarming, then, that CBP has a $900,000 contract with an encrypted messaging platform where agents could easily destroy all traces of problematic behavior or messages that corroborate reports of abuse with just the swipe of a finger. And from a legal standpoint, any use of the auto-burn function may also violate recordkeeping laws.”

Vice reported an initial $700,000 payment in April 2021, followed by a second contract worth $900,000 the following September. A CBP spokesperson claims that Wickr has only been used in “several small-scale pilots,” and that the department is using a version of the app that “allows for organizations to appoint administrators who can control messaging settings on the platform, including those regarding deletion,” NBC News reported.

But the spokesperson “declined to specify” further details, and CBP has an established history of protecting agents from accountability over their abuses.

This secrecy around the use of the app was also noted in NARA’s October letter, which said that the record-keeping agency became aware of CBP’s use of Wickr, along with WhatsApp, only through media reporting and an inspector general probe into U.S. border officials’ targeting of the so-called migrant caravan back in 2018. “In light of the information in the OIG report, NARA is concerned about agency-wide deployment of a messaging application that has this functionality without appropriate policies and procedures governing its use,” NARA said in the letter.

“Under Trump, White House Senior Advisor and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner came under fire for his routine use of unofficial messaging apps like Signal and Whatsapp, which also have similar auto-burn features, to conduct official business, and his failure to provide assurances that those records would be preserved,” CREW said. More recently, we found out about hours of missing phone logs on the day of the Jan. 6 coup attempt. 

CREW said that while President Biden “reversed a late-term Trump policy that would have allowed Kushner to preserve records by screenshot and has made some strides in committing to a more robust era of transparency,” CBP is a whole other issue.

“CBP, like ICE and other agencies DHS oversees, has an abysmal track record when it comes to complying with record-keeping laws,” CREW senior counsel Nikhel Sus said in the NBC News report. “This has had real consequences for accountability by impeding investigations and oversight of the agency’s activities. The agency’s use of Wickr, a messaging app with ‘auto-delete’ features, certainly raises red flags.” 


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