4 Ways the Political Elite Try (and Fail) to Avoid Leaving a Trail of Incriminating Messages

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Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The most powerful people in the country are just not as good as teenagers when it comes to being discreet. Mostly that’s by design — there are freedom of information laws meant to keep official correspondence public, to a point. But that doesn’t mean political staffers don’t try workarounds with the limited technological knowledge they do have. BlackBerrys, it turns out, still have their perks.

PIN Messaging

The latest example of people in power attempting to communicate privately on taxpayer time comes, allegedly, from the Cuomo administration. According to the New York Times, new grand jury subpoenas surrounding the sudden shut-down of the governor’s anti-corruption commission includes “allegations of interference by Cuomo administration officials, including the governor’s top aides and his senior appointees to the panel.” (“It’s my commission,” Governor Cuomo has said. “I can’t ‘interfere’ with it, because it is mine. It is controlled by me.”) But their methods of communication have come up for scrutiny:

When federal prosecutors took possession of the commission’s documents and computers, they also collected the BlackBerry smartphones the commission had provided to its staff, the people said. In the commission’s early days, senior members of its staff were told to communicate with Mr. Cuomo’s aides only via BlackBerry PIN messages, not recorded on government servers.

[Cuomo spokesperson Matthew Wing] defended the use of PIN messages as “a common way that many people communicate in 2014.”

That’s just not true. PIN messages and BlackBerry Messenger (or BBM), which also uses the PIN system, are way out of fashion in the general public in favor of WhatsApp, GroupMe, Gchat, iMessage, and basically anything else, since the only people left using BlackBerrys are old guys in finance or politics.

The problem for Cuomo is that his staff’s workaround is well known: In 2012, the Times implied a culture of paranoia or control within the administration, using their PIN messages as an example, to which a Cuomo spokesperson replied, “The Times has sunk to a new low by suggesting that normal, standard office practices to ensure confidential information is kept confidential is somehow objectionable.”

But it at least has an air of hiding something, and the Times is still on it. Federal prosecutors, on the other hand, have the power to just take the phones and look themselves.

Personal Email Addresses

Another effort to cloud transparency used by those in politics is the non-government account, like Gmail, Yahoo, or Hotmail, a common trick. As the Associated Press described in reference to former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius:

The secret email accounts complicate an agency's legal responsibilities to find and turn over emails in response to congressional or internal investigations, civil lawsuits or public records requests because employees assigned to compile such responses would necessarily need to know about the accounts to search them. Secret accounts also drive perceptions that government officials are trying to hide actions or decisions.

The practice was also infamously used by the George W. Bush administration, to get around the Presidential Records Act, and allegedly by Hillary Clinton, while she was secretary of state. Everyone may be doing it, but it always looks bad.

The Drafts Box

You’ve got to hand it to disgraced ex-CIA Director David Petraeus and his girlfriend/biographer Paula Broadwell for their creativity:

Petraeus and Broadwell apparently used a trick, known to terrorists and teen-agers alike, to conceal their email traffic, one of the law enforcement officials said.

Rather than transmitting emails to the other's inbox, they composed at least some messages and instead of transmitting them, left them in a draft folder or in an electronic "dropbox," the official said. Then the other person could log onto the same account and read the draft emails there. This avoids creating an email trail that is easier to trace.

And they would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for all of Broadwell’s alleged cyberstalking. (Al Qaeda also tried the drafts maneuver, so they’re in terrible company.)

Burner Phones

A favorite of drug dealers and people who have watched The Wire, a temporary line was allegedly used by a political staffer in Canada to confuse voters:

Another witness said Sona told him he “had been involved in a scheme to trick voters” and spoke of a disposal phone and went online to make calls to voters that their polling station had been changed to a “rundown mall.” […] Another witness interviewed in March 2012 told investigators Sona told him he got a prepaid credit card from a gas station, a burner phone and hooked up a “daemon dialler.”

It’s all good until you get caught buying a cell phone from a gas station. Then everyone knows what you’re up to.

The Solution

Come on, guys, just ask your daughters: Snapchat, which is like e-crack for high schoolers, disposes of all messages after a few seconds, and then clears its own servers soon after:

When a snap is viewed and the timer runs out, the app notifies our servers, which in turn notify the sender that the snap has been opened. Once we’ve been notified that a snap has been opened by all of its recipients, it is deleted from our servers. If a snap is still unopened after 30 days, it too is deleted from our servers.

Wall Street caught on last year, with Kevin Roose reporting, “In an industry where a stray Facebook photo of a drunken escapade can get a junior banker fired on the spot, Snapchat’s disappearing photos have made it a useful tool for Wall Street’s party crowd.”

It’s only a matter of time until it catches on for more nefarious purposes, unless it has already. The point is we wouldn’t know. The biggest impediment for now, other than ignorance: Snapchat does not yet have an official app for BlackBerry. Demand among the power set must still be low.