Government & Politics

Amid unrest in Ferguson, Missouri Highway Patrol started using secret messaging app

For more than four years, the Missouri State Highway Patrol used a self-destructing text messaging app called Silent Phone, raising concerns about whether it undermined open records laws or thwarted public oversight of law enforcement.

Silent Phone allows users to make phone calls and send encrypted text messages. It is designed so that users can set the time of a text’s deletion at anywhere from one minute to 90 days. The default setting erases texts in three days.

After which it is gone forever.

The highway patrol’s decision to purchase Silent Phone came in response to the 2014 protests in Ferguson over the killing of an unarmed African-American named Michael Brown by a white police officer. It was used during the 2017 protests in St. Louis following the acquittal of St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley, who was charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, an African-American suspect.

Staff in the governor’s office began using Silent Phone under former Gov. Eric Greitens during the 2017 St. Louis protests and later for overseas travel.

The Star requested copies of any text messages sent using Silent Phone since 2014, but the highway patrol said it had no records to turn over.

Rep. Bruce Franks, a St. Louis Democrat who participated in the Ferguson and St. Louis protests, expressed outrage that law enforcement was using a disappearing text message app.

“There’s already mistrust between the police and the community, and we’ve been trying to work to build trust,” Franks said. “There is mistrust in the community, so how can we change that when they’re using disappearing text apps?”

He noted that four St. Louis officers were indicted last year for attacking an undercover colleague posing as a protester, in part because federal authorities were able to obtain text messages they exchanged expressing excitement and glee at the prospect of brutalizing protesters.

“Imagine if these officers used this app, where we would have no record of any of the egregious things they said,” Franks said. “Imagine if they used disappearing texts to boast about beating up protesters. That’s horrible.”

Rep. Nick Schroer, R-St. Charles County, is among those working on legislation that would ban any state employee covered by the Missouri Sunshine Law from using self-destructing text message apps.

“We need to be able hold those accountable who overstep the line or misuse their power,” Schroer said. “Apps like this hurt our ability to do that.”

Capt. John Hotz, spokesman for the Missouri State Highway Patrol, declined to comment about how the highway patrol used Silent Phone’s texting function or why no texts were turned over to The Star under the state’s open records law.

Hotz said only that all laws regarding record retention were followed.

He cited a statement he issued last month noting Silent Phone was used to “protect and encrypt sensitive operational information during high risk operations such as the law enforcement response in Ferguson and following the Stockley verdict in St. Louis.”

The highway patrol says it no longer uses Silent Phone and that its licenses expired in December. The agency did not explain why it discontinued use of the app.

Silent Phone’s existence in Missouri government was first confirmed late last year in documents acquired by attorney Mark Pedroli after serving a subpoena in his lawsuit against the governor’s office over the use of another self-destructing text message app called Confide.

The extent of the app’s use was later uncovered via documents, emails and invoices obtained through open records requests to multiple state agencies by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit.

The documents were heavily redacted, and some were withheld citing federal law.

Among the emails obtained by Al Jazeera and provided to The Star was one sent shortly before the highway patrol was deployed to St. Louis in September 2017. Anticipating public protests in response to the upcoming Stockley verdict, troopers were informed that Silent Phone could be used “to both text and make secure calls” and instructed them on how to download and use it.

A later email notes that use of the app during the St. Louis protests came at the request of Colonel Sandra Karsten, a former superintendent of the Missouri State Highway Patrol who now serves as director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety.

Karsten’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment by The Star.

Another email obtained by Al Jazeera shows that former Attorney General Josh Hawley discovered Silent Phone was being used by the governor’s office in February 2018, during his investigation of whether use of Confide by Greitens and his staff violated Missouri law.

Hawley’s final report on the inquiry did not name the app nor explain that it automatically deleted text messages.

It’s unclear how many of Greitens’ staff were using Silent Phone. Chief Operating Officer Drew Erdmann and his special assistant, Maddie McMillian, kept it on their state-issued phones after Greitens resigned last June.

Erdmann had the app reinstalled a month after Gov. Mike Parson took over. It was finally deleted last month, although he insists the last time he used it was November 2017 while traveling for official business to the Middle East.

Pedroli, the co-founder of the Sunshine and Government Accountability Project who sued the governor’s office over use of Confide, said the highway patrol is “not above the law.”

“The Missouri State Highway Patrol is entitled to hardened, encrypted communications,” he said. “However, they are not entitled to destroy those communications.”

It’s also troubling, Pedroli said, that Silent Phone was installed on a state-owned phone in the governor’s office despite the fact that the judge in his Confide lawsuit — Cole County Circuit Court Judge Jon Beetem — issued an order in May prohibiting the use of self-destructing text message apps for public business while the lawsuit was ongoing.

“That a burner app was still being installed after Judge Beetem’s order is simply unbelievable,” Pedroli said.

Sara Baker, legislative and policy director for the ACLU of Missouri, said records that are in the public interest should be accessible to the public.

“We want transparency throughout government,” she said. “It shouldn’t matter where you work in government, it should matter that you’re accountable to the people.”

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Jason Hancock is The Star’s lead political reporter, providing coverage of government and politics on both sides of the state line. A three-time National Headliner Award winner, he has written about politics for more than a decade for news organizations across the Midwest.