Why law enforcement officers need to stop using consumer messaging apps.



By Jeff Halstead, co-founder & president of Evertel.

With the fact that 72% of first responders are using mobile devices on duty today, consumer messaging applications have become an integral part of law enforcement as officers use these devices to exchange information, including sensitive intelligence. Readily accessible through a few taps on smartphones, messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, GroupMe, Signal and even SMS texting, facilitate the prompt transfer of information, which is imperative in today’s law enforcement.

However, these applications expose law enforcement officers to specific workplace and legal risks. Police officers run the chance of information leaks by using platforms that are not secure, which can result in  facing legal action. Additionally, though not widely recognized, law enforcement officers violate the law by simply using public communication apps for work-related purposes.

Below are some reasons why law enforcement officers should not use consumer messaging apps while on-duty.

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Lack adequate security.

As the nature of law enforcement dictates, officers often exchange extremely sensitive intelligence with each other and between involved agencies. Doing so through public messaging apps poses the risk of information spilling outside the intended channels, despite promises of secure encryption from such applications.

Public messaging apps are designed  for general users and the nature of the information they exchange. While the platforms offer encryption of channels, the security is weak and can be breached by those after the sensitive intelligence shared by law enforcement teams. The information shared among police officers is of much greater sensitivity than general users and requires more stringent security than what is offered by platforms for everyday citizens.

One of the consequences of using insecure channels is legal risk. Leaked intelligence can lead to grievances for one or several involved entities in a case or general public. These damages then expose the officers coordinating the case to legal proceedings. In addition, officers, agencies and leadership can face reprimand from oversight departments for mishandling intelligence.

Consumer messaging apps also allow consumers to freely delete messages, which has become a feature platform designers and companies are  marketing more widely to attract more users. However, for officers and first responders, the lack of stringent tracking of messages and self-auditing features can create gaps in critical intelligence, which can lead to complications during investigations, especially when files are shared across agencies. This inhibits agencies from collaborating and adopting appropriate action to resolve cases.

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Do not offer legal compliance.

Lawsuits can require agencies to provide detailed archives of case proceedings as discussions and conversations on cases among officers and agencies are considered evidence. Outside of court proceedings, agencies can be required to present details under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) as well.

Law enforcement agencies must have archives and case records available to provide when summoned for investigation. Therefore, secure retention is critical as conversations on a case are also considered public records. To ensure departments are in compliance with FOIA laws, it is important that they use applications that provide layered security.

Deleting texts and conversations can mean further infringement of state and federal laws. Text messages among police officers are considered public records under varying laws in each state, and deleting conversations violates federal and state-level public records laws and is not compliant with Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS). For example, Section 119.011(12) of the Florida Statutes defines “public records” as:

“… all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, films, sound recordings, data processing software, or other material, regardless of the physical form, characteristics, or means of transmission, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any agency.”

Based on this information, text and SMS messages should reasonably be treated as public records and agencies must eliminate the risk of deleting information from their records and conversations. The only way to properly refrain officers from this catastrophic mistake is by eliminating usage of SMS texting and public messaging apps on-duty.

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Law enforcement officers nationwide are using consumer messaging platforms more frequently, and maybe rightfully so, as these apps facilitate swift action and are well known/understood across our population. They provide instant exchange of information and straightforward access with the near blanket availability of the internet across the nation. However, the profession of law enforcement mandates further specifications that communications platforms must meet. Without these requirements, law enforcement officers may face obstacles in the workplace as well as expose themselves to risks on multiple fronts.

Knowingly using the features of consumer messaging platforms that do not comply with CJIS and FOIA laws, such as deleting or manipulating evidentiary conversations, can lead to varying reprimand for law enforcement officers depending on their state.  With knowledge of public messaging app’s security pitfalls and failure to meet regulatory requirements, leaders at law enforcement and first responder agencies must look to adopt platforms specifically designed for their profession. These same leaders should adopt a strong internal policy prohibiting the use of all consumer messaging apps for work-related sharing of information & intelligence.  The majority of agencies in the U.S. do not have a policy. Applications that are secure and compliant with laws not only shield officers from workplace and legal risks but provide opportunities to enhance operations, through processes like interagency collaboration.

About the author:

Jeff Halstead dedicated nearly 30 years of service to law enforcement and corresponding local communities. For more than two decades, Halstead worked for the Phoenix Police Department, departing as Homeland Security Commander (Fusion Center) to join the Fort Worth Police Department. As Chief of Police in Fort Worth, he faced many national and global crisis incidents before retiring in 2015. He went on to found and create Evertel, a secure and compliant mobile communication platform for first responders and government entities, to solve the communication disparities he witnessed firsthand as a first responder and law enforcement agency leader.

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