White House Leaks Are Revealing but Threaten Transparency

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

February 17, 2017

White House watchers were anticipating a torrent of tweets from the Oval Office, and they haven’t been disappointed. But, along with the barrage of tweets, there has been a flood of embarrassing leaks, the like of which has never been seen before. It seems that White House staff are using an encrypted messaging app called Confide in order to perform these leaks anonymously.

However, rather than being a source of glee in Washington (except for President Trump’s most ardent enemies), the app is raising concerns that it poses dangers to transparency, if those in the new administration employ it to keep things secret.

Leaks are nothing new, and have plagued Washington for some time. In fact, leaks which alert the public to really serious breaches of policy by officials in Washington are actually beneficial to democracy. However, not in the scope or scale of what we’ve witnessed recently.

The sheer number of leaks now can’t be because there are some disgruntled individuals on the losing side of the election results, nor because Trump has ruffled the wrong feathers. It is almost an epidemic.

What is one to do about it? For starters, President Trump has launched an investigation. His anger and bewilderment prompted him to tweet:

“Why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?”

The answer, if not in the aforementioned disgruntled person’s category, may lay elsewhere. To ensure secrecy, every White House and Congressional staffer has the means to facilitate secure communication readily at hand, in the form of end-to-end encryption capabilities.

But this is not going as planned. Specifically, it has been reported that White House staffers are using the end-to-end encrypted messaging app Confide, which, owing to features like disappearing messages, allows them to chat privately without worry of being discovered.

Confide has been used extensively in business circles, so executives could do just that – converse in secrecy. The app employs robust protections using a proprietary encryption protocol that the company describes as “military-grade end-to-end encryption.” Much to the amusement of the large media contingent arrayed against the president (there are many), the leaks have provided them with endless damaging threats, as well as much ammunition for their daily story filings.

But this “success” may come with a downside later. The technology that exposes secrets will also permit secrets to be kept from the public. We know only too well how that works, from the eight prior years of Obama “transparency,” during which vital leaks and leakers to the media were vilified and prosecuted. So where is the happy medium between privacy and transparency? In fact, is there is one at all?

A communications and technology law researcher at Georgetown University Law School, David Vladek opines:

“If these apps are being used by White House staff, it raises very disturbing questions about compliance with the Presidential Records Act specifically, and more broadly the Federal Records Act. The whole point of these statutes is to assure that our nation’s history is neither lost nor manufactured, and the kinds of apps that obliterate the messages are completely incompatible with that and at odds with the law.”

So, then, there is a fine line when using an app like Confide. For personal, everyday communication among, say, family members, it is okay. But if it is used to obfuscate, it is wrong. Some hold that the problem isn’t just one of encryption, though. The author of the recent Wired piece feels that strong encryption and encrypted communication is fine, as long as a decryption key exists. In this way, security can coexist with both the letter and the spirit of public disclosure laws.

Yes, the age-old arguments of privacy versus national security seem to have now morphed to that of privacy and personal security. The bigger worry is that the applications that permit this higher level of security will be abused later, in more harmful ways, to keep the public-at-large in the dark. In that case, transparency and freedom will be the big losers.

Image credit: Confide

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