Reports last week suggested that senior GOP officials and several members of Trump administration are using Confide, an encrypted messaging app. The app is similar to Snapchat as messages self-destruct once they are read. While the app touts itself for offering encrypted communication, since it's closed source, its security claims can't be audited by an independent third-party. However, that's not the problem here.
Confide self-destructs messages once they are read, which means they can't be stored for records. Critics wonder if the White House staff is breaking the Presidential Records Act. But, since no one has access to the contents of Confide, it can't be verified if someone is "actually" breaking any laws.
Self-destructing messages: probably not the best choice for government, but perfect to avoid leaks
"Numerous senior GOP operatives and several members of the Trump administration" have downloaded the Confide app, which offers end-to-end encryption, Axios reported. The app forces users to drag a finger to read one line of the message at a time, making it difficult to take screenshots to thwart the chances of potential leaks. The company website says:
Confide messages self-destruct. After they are read once, they are gone. We delete them from our servers and wipe them from the device. No forwarding, no printing, no saving … no nothing.
The growing use of Confide by GOP and Trump administration is probably because of the leaks of the Democratic National Committee that played a major role in Hillary Clinton losing the 2016 Presidential election. However, many argue if GOP officials are falling for the same mistake, using "private" servers instead of the official ones.
GOP aside, the White House is required to conduct all business correspondence over White House email for preservation purposes. However, since the contents of those encrypted messages cannot be revealed, it’s unclear whether anyone’s breaking the law.
"Essentially, we just had an entire investigation about this exact issue if you think about it," Neil Eggleston, who served as White House Counsel during the Obama administration said. "Secretary Clinton used a non-official email account for her State Department activities, and there were significant investigations by the Republican Congress of that activity with conclusions that that was inappropriate and claims that she deleted materials in violation of the Presidential Records Act," he added.
"I don’t see how this would be any different."
Aaron Mackey, a legal fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said compliance with the PRA depends on what staff members are talking about. While the privacy-focused organization advocates for encryption, Mackey said when statutes set rules for archiving communications, they have to be followed for transparency and record-keeping.
It’s unclear to me whether these individuals - assuming the report is right - they’re using a particular messaging app - are discussing personal matters or if they’re discussing government business, creating documents and records that should be preserved.
If they are discussing government records and business … that does raise some concerns about whether or not records of the current administration are being preserved as required by the Presidential Records Act.
Confide grows in popularity following reports of Trump using it
While the new administration possibly breaking the law will be talked about for a few days, Confide is definitely winning here, enjoying the new-found attention.
The three-year-old app saw 3x new user sign-ups over the last week after the first reports of the GOP and Trump administration using the app came forward. Confide's co-founder and president Jon Brod said that it's not uncommon to experience a spike in interest after a well-publicized hack. "We do see a spike in across the board metrics when there is a major news cycle about the vulnerability of digital communications."
Other messaging apps offering end-to-end encryption, including Signal and Telegram, also experienced growth in usage after Trump's election victory. The Clinton campaign had reportedly adopted Signal after the DNC hack was discovered. It's unclear whether the Republicans were also using Confide during the campaign period, or if the usage started after the inauguration, following numerous leaks coming from the new government.
One "influential GOP operative" told Axios that "Republicans like him are especially paranoid about their communications after Hillary Clinton's email scandal."
"For folks that are on the inside in this city, it provides some cover."