Using the Signal app for government communication is illegal

By Stephanie Ramage

The most obvious use of the Signal app for government employees and officials is in bid-rigging and contract steering.

Secret communication allows leaders, procurement insiders, program managers, and vendors to share information about upcoming RFPs and competing bids. The danger, until recent years, has been getting caught—almost always as a result of clandestine phone texts and calls.

It’s exponentially harder to catch corrupt officials who are using Signal and apps like it to swing contracts to their cronies because the apps are designed to hide and erase all signs of communication—not just texts, but even phone calls.

Signal’s leaders brag on their website that they don’t have a server where data can be stored, so they are not answerable to the vast majority of subpoenas. All they can tell you, they say, is if a phone downloaded the app and the last time the phone opened the app.

Most state governments recognize the threat that secret communication between bidders and government agencies presents to ethical government. Georgia certainly does.

The Georgia Department of Administrative Services (DOAS) clearly states the following in the state procurement manual: 

“From the issue date of the solicitation and until a supplier is selected for contract award and the selection is made public, suppliers are not allowed to communicate for any reason with any state staff regarding the solicitation except through the issuing officer (or his/her designee) named in the solicitation. Prohibited communication includes all contact or interaction, including but not limited to telephonic communications, emails, faxes, letters, or personal meetings, such as lunch, entertainment, or otherwise.” 

They also recognize that communication on government-issued phones belongs to the taxpayers, so it’s never supposed to be private. The state’s employee conduct handbook says:

“All information in state computers and other state-owned tools and equipment such as cell phones, and any other technology, including but not limited to emails, text messages, etc. are subject to inspection by appropriate management at any time. No employee has a privacy interest in any information contained in a state computer or other state-owned tools and equipment.”

Signal and apps like it have been used secretly by government officials and employees across America for nearly a decade now to circumvent subpoenas, evade open records laws, arrange kickbacks, and destroy evidence. But some leaders are finally beginning to wake up to just how poisonous government use of the Signal app really is.

Last November, Texas Rangers executed search warrants in an investigation into Judge Lina Hidalgo’s alleged bid-rigging. As the investigators and law enforcement officers seized possible evidence, the local Fox affiliate reminded Hidalgo of a remark she’d made to their reporter the previous year. Hidalgo had admitted she had the Signal app, as well as WhatsApp, and Slack, but denied that she used them for government business.

“’Don’t you want to avoid even the potential that you could be having government conversations in basically a technological black box?’ asked FOX 26.

‘I told you, I don’t have governmental conversations on Signal,’ said Hidalgo.

Fast forward to last week’s filing of search warrant affidavits by Texas Rangers and the revelation, that contrary to Hidalgo’s claim that “she hadn’t used” encrypted messaging apps “for years”, she was in fact, communicating with her chief of staff on WhatsApp regarding not just County business, but more critically, the controversial, multi-million dollar Covid communication contract, which led to the criminal indictment of three of her top aides.”

The Signal app and other disappearing-message apps have no business on any government-issued device. A government employee or official claiming they were not using Signal to hide information is like saying you went to a brothel to learn how to crochet.

Signal app usage on government phones exists to hide and destroy public records. Period.

And that’s illegal.