The New Mexico child welfare agency has announced that it’s no longer using an app that critics say allowed it to work in secret and may have violated the state’s open-government laws.
The move comes after Searchlight New Mexico, a nonprofit investigative journalism outfit in Santa Fe, reported last month that the Children, Youth and Families Department had switched to the Signal app shortly after the coronavirus pandemic hit early last year.
Department Cabinet Secretary Brian Blalock told the news organization that child welfare officials realized they lacked safe and secure tools allowing employees to work remotely and found that Signal was the best tool to their knowledge.
Signal offers end-to-end encryption and allowed the agency to remain in compliance with the federal medical privacy law commonly known as HIPAA. The agency stopped using Signal in the last week of April, Blalock said.
The Searchlight report prompted quick, heavy criticism from Republican legislators and advocates of public transparency laws, which define most government communications as public records. The state’s Democratic attorney general, Hector Balderas, confirmed in the wake of the outcry that his office is investigating the use of the Signal app and any systematic deletion of public records, which he said would be “highly concerning.”
Blalock insists that no public records have been deleted — only “transitory communications” that he believes are exempt. But he decided to stop using Signal because he didn’t want his workers using a tool that might undermine public confidence in his agency’s commitment to transparency.
The agency set the app to allow for both scheduled and manual deletion of some encrypted messages, which are practically impossible to recover.
According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, Blalock said state agencies will now be using Microsoft Teams, a software program with some encryption features and scheduled deletions of messages, which the department is so far unable to control.
The office of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has not responded to requests for comment on the issue, according to news reports.
The Children, Youth and Families Department runs the state’s foster care system, juvenile justice facilities and behavioral health services for children and youth.