LANSING —A representative of the Michigan State Police confirmed for the first time Thursday that many of its top officials have used the text messaging app Signal on their state-issued cell phones, but he denied that use of the “end-to-end” encryption app in itself would violate the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.
First Lt. Matt Williams told a Senate subcommittee that use of the app is neither officially banned nor officially sanctioned and the department is now reviewing whether its continued use is appropriate.
Text messages sent using Signal bypass the state server and, once deleted, leave no record. A regular text message sent on a state phone, even once deleted, could be retrieved from the phone or the state server.
Signal, which is a free-to-the-user app funded by grants and donations, says on its website: “We can’t read your messages or listen to your calls, and no one else can either.”
The Free Press reported Jan. 22 that high-ranking members of the MSP were using the app, after the department made admissions in a civil lawsuit. Until Thursday, the MSP had declined to comment on the issue, citing ongoing litigation, but Pinckney attorney James Fett provided the Free Press with screenshots showing at least 18 MSP officials had the app installed on their phones.
In the lawsuit, the MSP initially acknowledged that the department director, Col. Joseph Gasper, had the app on his state phone. But after the Free Press made inquiries, the Attorney General’s Office, which is representing the state defendants in the case, submitted a corrected filing, denying Gasper had Signal.
Barrett wanted Gasper to testify Thursday, but the department sent Williams instead, saying Gasper, who is a defendant in lawsuits brought by one MSP official who was fired and another who was demoted, was not able to attend.
On Thursday, Williams told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee responsible for the MSP that Gasper never downloaded Signal to his state-issued cellphone. But he appeared to confirm that Gasper had the app installed on his personal cellphone.
“Did the director use it on his personal device for state business,?” asked Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, who chairs the subcommittee.
“I would say no, for state purposes,” Williams replied. But he then quickly added: “I can’t answer that” without first checking with Gasper.
The Free Press then asked MSP spokeswoman Shanon Banner whether Gasper had used Signal to send text messages for state purposes on his personal phone.
“Because Col. Gasper is a named defendant in a lawsuit in which these questions are being asked, we will not be able to answer that question for you,” Banner said.
Williams said he could not estimate how many members of the MSP had downloaded the Signal app, but he agreed to provide a list to the subcommittee, once it is available.
Williams said all members of the MSP are required to comply with the Freedom of Information Act and MSP policies regarding the retention of public records. That means all communications that would be deemed public records must be retained for specified periods of time, regardless of whether they are sent by Signal or some other means, and regardless of whether they are sent on state devices or personal devices, he said.
And there are legitimate business purposes for apps such as Signal, such as when a number of police agencies need to be able to exchange sensitive information across different types of devices, such as when providing security for a presidential motorcade, he said.
But when asked, Williams could not cite a specific MSP operational plan in which the use of Signal was part of the plan. He said he would get back to the lawmakers on that.
Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, said members of the public are left to try to “prove a negative” if a member of the MSP deletes a text message sent using Signal. What proof can there be that such a message ever existed? he asked.
Whether use of Signal by the MSP is appropriate “is something we are reviewing,” Williams said.