St. Louis County Considers Banning Self-Deleting Text Apps For Government Use | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis County Considers Banning Self-Deleting Text Apps For Government Use

Oct 15, 2019

The St. Louis County Council is expected to take up a proposal to ban the use of self-deleting text message apps for government business.

Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, asked staff last week to draft legislation that prohibits the use of self-deleting text apps when communicating about county business. She said she plans to introduce the policy at a county council meeting over the next several weeks. 

“I think it’s necessary. I think it’s proactive, and I think it sends a strong message that not only is this discouraged in county government, it’s prohibited by policy,” she said. 

Self-deleting apps allow people to send text messages that are automatically erased shortly after being read. That raises concerns officials may use them to communicate about government business in secret and evade sunshine laws. If text messages are automatically erased, then they aren’t available for public records requests, audits and other investigations.

Clancy said she hasn’t had a chance to talk over her proposal with the rest of the county council yet, but she expects them to be supportive of the concept. The county is trying to be more transparent following the conviction of former county executive Steve Stenger on corruption charges earlier this year, she said.

County Executive Sam Page said he supports Clancy’s effort. “These types of apps are not permitted in the county executive’s office. They don’t have any place in county government,” he said in a written statement.

Clancy said she isn’t aware of anyone who uses self-deleting text messages in county government, but several people at the state government level were caught up in a controversy over self-deleting texts.

The state has spent over $340,000 in court to defend former Gov. Eric Greitens’ staff’s use of the self-deleting app. The State Highway Patrol also used a self-deleting app to communicate with each other during the 2014 protests in Ferguson following the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer, according to the Kansas City Star.

Clancy said she was inspired to draft legislation after State Auditor Nicole Galloway sent a letter to local governments across Missouri, asking them to prohibit the use of self-deleting apps. Galloway said the apps could potentially interfere with her office’s ability to conduct an audit.

“These applications allow for public business to be conducted in secret and prevent taxpayers from holding government accountable,” wrote Galloway, a Democrat who is running for governor, in her letter.

The State Records Commission, which provides guidelines for records retention policy in the executive branch of state government, recommended a ban on self-deleting text message apps last May, according to Galloway. 

“No communication should be automatically destroyed under any circumstances. The use of auto delete applications should be prohibited by policy, as they do not allow a determination as to the appropriate retention period for the message,” read guidelines passed by the commission.

The state records commission includes Galloway, Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft — or people they have appointed to serve on the board as their representatives. Officials from the Parson administration and the Legislature also participate.

The names of commission members who voted in favor of the guidelines — including a prohibition on self-deleting messages — was not immediately available Tuesday. Ashcroft is the head of the commission. His office did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday about the group’s vote. 

Follow Julie on Twitter: @jsodonoghue

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