By: Quentin Fottrell | January 9, 2014 (Featured on The Wall Street Journal)
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said Thursday he knew nothing about the emails and texts members of his inner circle sent related to causing horrific traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge last September. As he grappled with fallout from the scandal, experts say it may be easier for staffers to cover their tracks.
Christie’s political scandal is just the latest of many to involve texts and emails unearthed by subpoena. On Thursday, he fired his deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, who was at the center of the bridge scandal, and the U.S. Justice Department announced Thursday that it will investigate whether the lane closures violated federal law. “Time for some traffic problems,” Kelly allegedly emailed to a Christie associate at the Port Authority. School children, commuters and emergency services were all ensnared in the traffic jams.
Millions of people already send files and messages using secure apps like Wickr, Tiger Text, Silent Circle and Snapchat, which can be timed to disappear after a specified amount of time. Launched in September 2011, Snapchat is one of the most popular. The company recently turned down a $3 billion offer from Facebook. Users can send “Snaps”—photos or videos and short messages—that last between 1 and 10 seconds, depending on the time limit set by the sender. It has over 100 million users and shares up to 400 million snaps daily. Wickr was founded by a team of privacy experts “who believe that anonymous communication is important to our political and social discourse,” according to the company’s mission statement.
The bad news for media, the public and the authorities: Such messages may be zapped from servers and unavailable to investigators. More political operatives may start to emulate the social networking habits of sexting politicians and young adults—and many recent political scandals may not even have been uncovered by the media or authorities if they were sent using these apps, says Derrick Daye, managing director at Los Angeles-based consultancy The Blake Project. What’s more, they could also make it easier for people in public life to engage in inappropriate and—in the case of the George Washington Bridge closure—potentially illegal activities, he says. “As long as there are private channels available, they will be used and certainly preferred,” Daye says.
Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, social networks must comply with court orders if they’re subpoenaed. However, only unopened snaps are stored on Snapchat’s servers (for 30 days), a spokeswoman says. Likewise, TigerText doesn’t store messages on the company’s servers after they’ve disappeared and, thus, messages that have expired or been deleted cannot be retrieved, a company spokeswoman says. “If subpoenaed, TigerTexts cannot be used in evidence against you as the messages are impermanent and deleted immediately,” she says, unless a customer voluntarily chooses to archive all messages as part of TigerTexts’ premium service.
Of course, these apps are not designed to encourage or condone illegal behavior. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: TigerTexts counts hospitals and financial services companies as customers. Wickr was founded on the principle that private communication is worth money and should not be exploited. Silent Circle, which costs $9 a month, can send files of up to 100 megabytes—everything from x-rays to movies—and can also encrypt voice calls; it counts 26 of the Fortune 500 as customers and governmental departments from 11 nations. “There are legitimate reasons you would want your communications to remain private and ephemeral,” says Michael Fertik, CEO at Reputation.com, a site that assists consumers shielding their privacy online.