SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said Wednesday he is “highly concerned” about government employees potentially deleting public information after questions were raised about the communication practices of the state agency that oversees foster children, juvenile justice and child welfare.
Balderas confirmed in an email that his office is reviewing claims that the Children, Youth and Families Department has been encrypting and routinely deleting texts. The practice was first revealed in a report by Searchlight New Mexico, a nonprofit investigative journalism group.
Republican legislative leaders have asked for an investigation over transparency concerns. They and other critics said the practice could hamper investigations into how the agency cares for children or how other government employees conduct business amid a pandemic that has pushed more services and communication into the virtual realm.
“What we have seen over the past year is a government that has hidden itself away in a maze of virtual walls," said House Republican Leader Jim Townsend of Artesia. “For the leadership in any state agency to think that they can circumvent transparency by deleting public documents is a slap in the face to New Mexicans who have placed their trust in public service.”
Searchlight New Mexico reported Tuesday that the app Signal has been used by the child welfare agency since at least the outset of the pandemic. The app can set chats to automatically delete, making them inaccessible under the state’s open records laws. Some communication between state employees is considered public record.
Agency spokesman Charlie Moore Pabst told the Santa Fe New Mexican that federal agencies and others use such systems to provide stronger protection for sensitive information.
The agency's "adoption of paid Zoom with encryption and Signal is a best practice for public sector entities as they move to address the growing risk to cybercrime — a risk that has only grown with the advent of wide-scale remote work by state employees,” Moore Pabst wrote in an email.
Renee Narvaiz with the state Department of Information Technology wrote in a text message that department’s regulations and those of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act guidelines “require us to encrypt sensitive information to protect their integrity and confidentiality.”
House Republicans on Tuesday requested the offices of the attorney general and the state auditor address potential open records violations and investigate how widespread use of encrypted communications and subsequent data dumping is within state government.
They also called on Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to detail whether her staff and or cabinet level staff have been encrypting and dumping data.
Matt Nerzig, a spokesman in the governor’s office, did not immediately answer questions about how widespread the practice might be or whether the governor would reassess its use by child welfare workers.
According to the Searchlight New Mexico report, standard text messages or emails can be accessed by attorneys, reporters and members of the public under the state’s open records laws. However, messages sent via Signal are all but impossible to retrieve. Once deleted, virtually no traces of Signal conversations remain.
“You can’t just encrypt and automatically delete communications between state employees,” Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, told Searchlight New Mexico. “That’s no different than putting official documents in the shredder at the end of every day."
The child welfare agency began using Signal last year as part of a information technology upgrade that agency Secretary Brian Blalock said was needed to protect confidential records of children in state custody and to facilitate secure, remote communications.
Blalock told Searchlight New Mexico that the agency routinely deletes communications on Signal but said the information was not subject to New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act.