White House Staff Using Secretive Encrypted Apps to Leak Information about the Current Trump Administration

February 17, 2017

President Donald Trump stated in an animated press conference on February 16, 2017 that his “administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.”
The number of leaks plaguing the current administration, and the information being leaked, paint a different story. A transcript of his telephone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull revealed that Trump was incensed by an Obama agreement to take in refugees, and told the Prime Minister that this was “the worst call by far” he’s had with world leaders. Trump reportedly yelled at Turnbull and hung up on him after just 25 minutes, though the conversation was scheduled to last an hour.
The leaks range from serious domestic and international policy matters, to more embarrassing insider accounts of what it’s like to work in the White House under this new administration.

The Twitter account Rogue POTUS describes itself as “The unofficial resistance team inside the White House”

and says they “pull back the curtain to expose the real workings inside this disastrous, frightening Administration.” After his press conference on February 16, the account tweeted “POTUS says he “owned them” regarding press conference. However, was not amused afterward when someone pointed out Obama’s 332 in 2012.”
The account is also soliciting leaks publicly. They posted a tweet quoting user Katie McAllister (@Katiemca), who tweeted “For anyone ready to leak information on Trump, @RoguePOTUSStaff”.

Many of the White House Staffers are using a mobile application called Confide to communicate about leaking information.

Confide is an encrypted messaging application—a secretive and private way to send messages on mobile devices. It features disappearing messages and prevents users from screenshotting messages in order to minimize the digital paper trail of the communication. And its use has “spiked” since the start of the new Trump Administration, according to Confide’s co-founder and president, who said they’ve seen an “enormous spike” in usage and engagement.
Confide was founded in 2013, and was in fact made for this purpose—to provide executives a way to “to trade gossip and talk shop.” Messages automatically self-destruct, so they’re not saved and subject to later discovery. Other mobile applications like Snapchat also have disappearing message features, but Confide is unique. It’s the only secure messaging app whose encryption is closed source and proprietary, which means that “no one outside the company knows what’s going on under the hood of the app.”
Within the context of the White House, use of the app to leak information about the administration may have some particularly serious legal implications. David Vladeck, a communications and technology law researcher at Georgetown Law School said its use by Staffers “raises very disturbing questions about compliance with the Presidential Records Act specifically, and more broadly the Federal Records Act[.]” These laws, he says, are intended to prevent our nation’s history from being lost or manufactured.
In contrast, according to an article posted by Above the Law (a website popular among law students that features candid and anecdotal information about a variety of legal topics) titled “White House Staff Probably Violating The Presidential Records Act, And I Probably Don’t Care,” violating the act isn’t that big of a deal. The Act basically says White House Staff “can’t throw away their work” but it doesn’t “really define any punishments for violators.” (The article also says that Trump is probably violating this act every time he deletes one of his tweets. The New York Daily News similarly raised another interesting question about the Presidential Records Act and the implications of using social media to communicate, asking whether the President violates the PRA every time he deletes a tweet because of a misspelled word.)
Even if violating the PRA isn’t a big deal, if Staffers are using Confide to violate the more serious federal criminal laws on destroying federal records, they would certainly face more serious penalties, including prison time. Certainly, there is no shortage of political drama with the new Administration.