By Erica C. Barnett
One of the members of the HOPE team, a Human Services Department-led group that coordinates outreach work at encampments, directed city staff and nonprofit outreach contractors earlier this year to stop using text messages, which are subject to public disclosure, to communicate about homeless encampment outreach and removals.
Instead, the HOPE team member, Christina Korpi, wrote in an April 8 email, staffers should use Signal, an encrypted private messaging app commonly used by activists, journalists, and others who want to shield their messages so that they can’t be read by anyone except the intended recipient. Signal can be set to auto-delete messages on both the sender and the recipient’s phones, making them impossible to recover.
In Korpi’s email, which went out to dozens of outreach providers and at least eight city staffers, including the members of the HOPE team, she wrote, “We are planning to start using the Signal app instead of text message thread for field communications. Please download this app on your phone, or let me know if you have concerns or questions about using it.”
Mayor Jenny Durkan has come under fire for deleting text messages and failing to disclose communications that are subject to the state Public Disclosure Act, a potential felony. Unlike using ordinary text messages, sending messages on Signal and other encrypted private messaging apps are effectively exempt from public disclosure.
A spokesman for the Human Services Department, Kevin Mundt, said it was actually an outreach provider who first suggested using Signal as an alternative to the text message chains the city and outreach providers have traditionally used to coordinate shelter and services referrals from encampments, which Mundt said is currently limited to 20 users. (Signal group texts can include up to 1,000 users). Regardless, the fact remains that a city staffer directed both nonprofit service providers and other city employees to download and use Signal to communicate with each other in the field.
The city of Seattle’s IT department does not allow employees to install Signal on their phones, according to a spokesman for City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office. “Downloading mobile messaging services for encrypted messaging is not approved for City devices,” the spokesman said. The state Public Records Act requires public officials and government agencies to retain all records that are not specifically exempt from disclosure under the law.
According to Mundt, after consulting with the IT department, HSD decided not to use Signal for “case conferencing, the shelter referral process or any related City business “due to the need to maintain records for public disclosure.” Instead, they are using the Microsoft Teams app. Case conferencing is the process by which service providers connect their clients to housing based, among other criteria, on their “vulnerability,” which includes criteria like age, length of homelessness, and disability. Continue reading “Homeless Service Providers, City Employees Told to Use Encrypted App”