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Five members of Cabinet have downloaded app that allows encrypted messages to be wiped

Unlike WhatsApp, the data from Signal messages is retained on the device only and not backed up in the cloud.

Image: Shutterstock/Michele Ursi

Updated Sep 5th 2021, 3:10 PM

FIVE MEMBERS OF Cabinet have downloaded an encrypted messaging app in which text conversations, images, videos and voice notes can be made to disappear.

The five ministers – Stephen Donnelly, Heather Humphreys, Paschal Donohoe, Eamon Ryan and Roderic O’Gorman – all have accounts with the messaging service Signal which are linked to their mobile phone numbers.

The secure messaging app is similar to the Facebook-owned WhatsApp, and has a function which allows users’ messages and other information to be automatically deleted after a certain length of time.

According to the creators of the app: “Privacy isn’t an optional mode — it’s just the way that Signal works. Every message, every call, every time.”

The app has a setting that allows messages to be wiped both ends – both from the receiver’s phone and the sender’s. Unlike services like WhatsApp, the data for messages that are stored is retained on the device only and not backed up in the cloud. 

Deleted texts 

The use of the app by senior Government figures comes amid controversy over the deletion by Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney of text messages relating to the appointment of Katherine Zappone as UN Special Envoy in July.

On Tuesday, Coveney told a Dáil committee that the messages were no longer on his phone, prompting accusations that he had deleted texts to avoid scrutiny under Freedom of Information laws.

Coveney subsequently told reporters on Wednesday that he deleted messages after his phone was hacked.

Speaking the same day Donohoe, the Finance Minister, said he also sometimes deleted texts. He told RTÉ radio: “I keep most of the messages that come through to me. Sometimes, I do delete texts if they come through and I’ve dealt with them quickly.”

Guidance 

Official government guidance on the FOI Act states that employees of the State must retain records such as text messages and emails if private messaging services are used to conduct official business.

The use of Signal would put government ministers at odds with this guidance if the app’s function to automatically delete messages was used in connection with official business. 

The Journal contacted spokespeople for the five ministers on Friday. 

A response on behalf of Donnelly, the Health Minister, said: “Minister Donnelly does not use this app to conduct any official business.”

A spokesperson for Justice Minister Heather Humphreys said she is “fully aware of her obligations under Freedom of Information legislation and acts in accordance with that legislation”.

They added: “The minister does not transact Government business by text using Signal.”

A spokesperson for Donohoe said he used the app in his capacity as head of the Eurogroup group of EU finance ministers, and that it was set up in response to EU guidance on messaging systems. 

The Sunday Independent, which published a story on ministers’ use of Signal on its front page this morning, carries responses from the other Cabinet ministers. 

A response on behalf of the Green Party said their ministers “are aware of their respective department’s ICT policies which state that they are expected to maintain records of communications concerning official matters that would be of enduring interest to their organisations”.

“Like many other people, they use instant messaging apps, such as WhatsApp and Signal. As is known, it is standard for such services to have optional timed-delete functions.”

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FoI

There have been accusations by the opposition in recent days that the government has brought the Freedom of Information Act “into disrepute”, with the controversy surrounding Coveney also enveloping Tánaiste Leo Varadkar after he released text messages between the pair on Wednesday evening.

The text messages had been the subject of Freedom of Information requests by a number journalists, who were told they did not exist after civil servants had exhausted all avenues searching for them. 

The messages should have been released under FOI legislation, and Varadkar apologised that this did not happen on Thursday morning, saying he was on “annual leave” and was not contacted to share them when journalists’ requests were being processed.

“As I think has been explained by my department, the FOI officer did their job. They looked up the emails, looked up the paper records, didn’t find anything,” the Tánaiste said.

“Because I was away and my senior staff were away, I wasn’t asked whether I had any messages on my phone. That’s what happened, an honest oversight. I don’t think there will be any consequences for the official involved. It would be very unfair.”

Varadkar added that procedures would be put in place to avoid a repeat of the situation, but added this could mean “delays” to the FOI process.

However, Sinn Féin spokesperson on Public Expenditure and Reform, Mairéad Farrell said the week’s events showed that the country’s Freedom of Information regime is “in crisis”.

“The recent example of Merriongate and of Ministers deleting texts and then providing spurious reasons to justify this, brings the FOI regime into further disrepute,” she said.

- Additional reporting by Daragh Brophy 

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