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EPA Sued For Withholding A List Of Officials Who Can Send Encrypted Messages

SARANSK, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 06, 2017: A computer screen shows details of United States Environmental Protection Agency main page on its web site. Selective focus. (Credit: g0d4ather/Shutterstock)SARANSK, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 06, 2017: A computer screen shows details of United States Environmental Protection Agency main page on its web site. Selective focus. (Credit: g0d4ather/Shutterstock)

A government watchdog group filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday to compel the agency to turn over records related to employee’s use of encrypted messaging apps.

The Cause of Action Institute (CoA) is continuing its battle for records on how many EPA employees may have tried to shield their work-related communications with encrypted apps, like Signal, to avoid federal transparency laws.

CoA has filed three Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for agency records, including EPA’s use of the software tool “Mobile Device Management” to compile master lists of apps installed onto government mobile devices and computers.

EPA has so far only responded to two of CoA’s three FOIA requests, so the group is suing to get more records released. CoA filed suit against EPA in the U.S. District Court for D.C.

“We now know that a small group of career EPA employees used Signal to avoid transparency,” CoA counsel Ryan Mulvey said in an emailed statement.

“These employees’ work-related communications—including their messages concerning any proposed efforts to thwart the new Administration’s political appointees from carrying out the President’s policy agenda—should have been preserved for disclosure to the public,” Mulvey said. “Records released by the EPA, however, prove that this preservation never took place.”

CoA has ongoing litigation against EPA, but a separate lawsuit revealed the agency does, in fact, use a “Mobile Device Management” tool to monitor what apps are installed on government phones.

Federal law requires employees to preserve all work-related records. EPA employees could be breaking the law by using Signal to hide such records. The use of encryption apps themselves does not seem to be illegal.

Politico first reported in February that “a small group of career [EPA] employees” were using “an encrypted messaging app to discuss what to do if Trump’s political appointees undermine their agency’s mission to protect public health and the environment, flout the law, or delete valuable scientific data.”

Republican lawmakers on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology asked EPA’s inspector general to look into the matter in February.

The IG’s office began looking into the matter after it was reported by The Washington Times and Daily Caller News Foundation, according to documents obtained by CoA.

“Now, the EPA has effectively refused to disclose any additional documents that could show how pervasive the use of Signal was and how seriously the agency has tried to rectify serious deficiencies in meeting its record preservation obligations,” Mulvey said.

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