I’m wagering the designers of the Signal app are scratching their heads as they pore over the company’s spreadsheets this week.
“What the hell has led to our spike in New Mexico?” one of the analytics guys has to be asking. “Are we doing some specialized marketing there?”
Naw. No need. The state Children, Youth and Families Department is taking care of that all on its own.
CYFD handed state government — really, officials at every level — their own eureka moment, employing Signal, the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t chat service, as an accepted way of doing business. Searchlight New Mexico broke that story, with CYFD Cabinet Secretary Brian Blalock contending the app’s encrypted messaging was necessary to protect confidential records of children in the care of the state and help make communication more secure in these pandemic times.
Besides, Blalock added, the lawyers said it was OK.
Well, heck, if it’s OK with the lawyers …
Welcome, sports fans, to 21st-century government — the folks who will sing a pretty aria about “transparency” and “public interest” and “doing what’s right,” then glom on to any cudgel, app or legal argument that can beat the public senseless while bending the state’s open-records laws to suit their own desires. The lawyers fly air cover.
I’d be stunned, absolutely shocked, if everyone except the county dog catcher isn’t downloading Signal right now.
It’s the greatest thing to happen to government-sanctioned secrecy since the invention of the executive session.
I know, I know: another bitter journalist, complaining about his own self interest — crying into his beer mug over the inability to peek at government records and report on the public’s business.
It’s true. Anytime state or local government figures out a new way to make my job harder, I don’t like it. Why should I?
But then, why should you? If a media organization — one that can launch its own investigations and mass produce potentially unflattering stories — finds its work blunted by Signal or any other roadblock government erects, how well do you, Joe and Jane Public, think you’ll do with an Inspection of Public Records Act request?
Signal, I fear, is just a sign of what’s to come.
Hello! You’re asking for records documenting what public officials talked about while determining procedure, practice or policy on the taxpayers’ dime? I’m so sorry, we have no paperwork that addresses your concern. But we can help you spell encryption!
The richest part of the state’s response to Searchlight’s story came a day after it broke. On day one, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office said he wasn’t sure he’d be able to immediately answer when asked if other state agencies were using the app.
A day later, came the reply.
Supremely succinct, this one-word soliloquy comes from a Michelle Lujan Grisham administration that can go on for pages and hours on almost any topic — right down to the smallest, most minute detail. The sudden burst of brevity says something. To me, a cynic, it’s this: It strains the boundaries of good sense to believe Children, Youth and Families is the only department in a vast bureaucracy to trip over Signal — and what it can do for untrackable communication.
The Attorney General’s Office says it’s “highly concerning” that public information could be deleted through the use of Signal.
We’ll see if those are just words or an actual indication of action.
In any case, even if CYFD is the only user, it’s by far not the only agency looking for a leg up. Truth be told, it’s not even close to being the least open agency in state government. Though the competition is fierce, that dubious award goes to the perennial champ, the Corrections Department — or as some cynics might call it, the Tom Brady of obfuscation. Regardless of administration or political persuasion, Corrections put the Inspection of Public Records Act in the clink years ago and threw away the key.
Fortunately, all is not lost. IPRA battles are being fought in courtrooms all over the state. But it’s a slog. Often, when government loses, it appeals. When it loses on appeal, it stalls. And why not? It’s your money going to legal fees, not theirs.
I’d be surprised if someone doesn’t file a lawsuit over Signal. A court eventually may have to determine whether private, electronic communication between state-paid employees can magically disappear.
As with most lawsuits, the outcome likely will be costly. I’m just hoping the pain is only financial. The loss of open government would be the tragedy.
You know the real irony? Signal is free.