Searchlight New Mexico recently completed an investigation and found that two employees of the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) raised concerns about the agency’s recent shift to the use of encryption and the automated destruction of public records. This report was released shortly after the employees were terminated in May 2021.
The department transitioned to the secure text messaging app Signal to discuss a wide range of official business, including the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the care of children in state custody. Officials asserted that they relied on Signal primarily for “transitory communications.”
CYFD now claims that the contentious use of Signal has ceased, but the memory hole goes deeper than that. In fact, the Governor mandated a protocol for the automatic deletion of “transitory” messages that has been in force since January.
After penning an op-ed debunking the definition of “transitory” communications within the definition of the law, I decided to continue following (what was left of) the paper trail. I conducted a new search for a document retention policy, uncovering a directive from Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office.
On January 21, 2021, Renee Narvaiz of New Mexico’s Department of Information Technology (DoIT) sent a state-wide memo detailing that “the Executive Branch is preparing to “migrate” to new software called TEAMS, packaged within the Microsoft Office365 productivity suite. Office365 includes software like Word and Excel but also includes the TEAMS business communication platform. Think of TEAMS as instant messaging, almost like Signal but with more robust enterprise-level configuration and security tools, including forced policies like automated message deletion.
The specific text of the most concerning part of the memo reads, “As of Sunday, January 24, 2021, TEAMS Chat communications will only be retained for 24 hours from their creation.”
The Governor has literally decreed that all messages from all state agencies and departments shall be automatically deleted after 24 hours.
This is different from the open records fiasco currently embroiling CYFD, as those auto-deletion features can only be enabled by individual employees as end-users. The Governor’s TEAMS messaging purge is enforced by DoIT. And apparently, the DoIT’s information technology policy is dictated by the Governor’s Office.
This is not a mandatory feature of TEAMS. Rather, it was a carefully considered policy pushed from the Executive Branch. Why does any government agency with obligations to be transparent need to use software that supports forced automatic deletion of public records?
Additionally, employees are told to screenshot any messages they wish to retain: “Any user who wishes to preserve a copy of a TEAMS Chat communication must do so outside of the TEAMS Chat environment. Users can either copy/paste the communication or take a screen shot.”
DoIT asks for 15 days to respond to public records requests. I made a request just the afternoon and the agency responded:
“Records Custodians have 3 days to respond to all IPRA Requests; this is a standard response as required by the Inspection of Public Records Act. DoIT may have the records on or before this date. Unfortunately, this is not our only pending request and there are several in our queue. DoIT is allowed 15 days to provide the information requested or send a follow up response relating to the status.”
Let’s take a step back. The Governor has mandated automatic deletion of public records from all of the state agencies currently using TEAMS messaging within 24 hours, and I can’t get a response about the existence of records until after 72 hours.
These public records are being deleted before any constituent can ask for copies. That’s beyond dangerous.
Patrick Brenner is the Vice President of the Rio Grande Foundation, New Mexico’s free-market research institute and think tank. He leads the Foundation’s open government and second amendment efforts.
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