Photo depicting a smartphone screen with various apps.

Homeless Service Providers, City Employees Told to Use Encrypted App

by Erica C.Barnett

(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

One of the leaders of the Homelessness Outreach and Provider Ecosystem (HOPE) Team, a Human Services Department-led group that coordinates outreach work at encampments, directed city staff and nonprofit outreach contractors earlier this year to stop using text messages, which are subject to public disclosure, to communicate about homeless encampment outreach and removals.

Instead, the HOPE Team leader, Christina Korpi, wrote in an April 8 email that staffers should use Signal, an encrypted private messaging app commonly used by activists, journalists, and others who want to shield their messages so that they can’t be read by anyone except the intended recipient. Signal can be set to auto-delete messages on both the sender and the recipient’s phones, making them impossible to recover.

In Korpi’s email, which went out to dozens of outreach providers and at least eight city staffers, including the members of the HOPE Team, she wrote, “We are planning to start using the Signal app instead of text message thread for field communications. Please download this app on your phone, or let me know if you have concerns or questions about using it.”

Mayor Jenny Durkan has come under fire for deleting text messages and failing to disclose communications that are subject to the State Public Disclosure Act, a potential felony. Unlike using ordinary text messages, sending messages on Signal and other encrypted private messaging apps are effectively exempt from public disclosure.

A spokesman for the Human Services Department (HSD), Kevin Mundt, said it was actually an outreach provider who first suggested using Signal as an alternative to the text message chains the City and outreach providers currently use to coordinate shelter and services referrals from encampments, which Mundt said is currently limited to 20 users — Signal group texts can include up to 1,000 users. Regardless, the fact remains that a city staffer directed both nonprofit service providers and other city employees to download and use Signal to communicate with each other in the field.

The City of Seattle’s IT Department does not allow employees to install Signal on their phones, according to a spokesman for City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office. “Downloading mobile messaging services for encrypted messaging is not approved for City devices,” the spokesman said. The State Public Records Act requires public officials and government agencies to retain all records that are not specifically exempt from disclosure under the law.

According to Mundt, HSD decided not to use Signal for “case conferencing, the shelter referral process, or any related City business due to the need to maintain records for public disclosure.” Instead, they are using the Microsoft Teams app. Case conferencing is the process by which service providers connect their clients to housing based, among other criteria, on their “vulnerability,” which includes criteria like age, length of homelessness, and disability.

Mike Fancher, the president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government board and former executive editor of the Seattle Times, said that even beyond Durkan’s public records scandal, Seattle “has a huge set of problems about openness and transparency, and there seems to be a very lax attitude about openness and transparency in all kinds of ways. And I would hope, for starters, that this becomes a significant issue in the mayoral and council races.”

Korpi’s email directing providers and HOPE Team members to download Signal and let her know if they had any concerns about using the encrypted app also included a new nondisclosure agreement for everyone who participates in the HOPE Team’s regular Wednesday morning meetings, where the team and providers decide where to dispatch outreach workers that week — including which encampments have been bumped up to “high-priority” status, one of the final steps before a sweep — and talk about individual cases.

The agreement commits those who sign it “to sharing the minimal information necessary to accommodate the case conferencing goals of connecting individuals to shelter, housing, and other supportive services.” 

The confidentiality agreement defines “case conferencing” broadly as “any HOPE Team facilitated conversations, including meetings and all forms of verbal and written communications where the needs of individuals are discussed for the purpose of connecting individuals to shelter, housing, and other supportive services.”

The email could be read to prohibit people who participate in the Wednesday calls from talking about upcoming encampment removals. Mutual aid groups — groups of individuals who provide supplies and information to encampment residents and try to prevent planned sweeps — often find out the location of planned removals in advance and show up before and during sweeps by the city’s Parks Department, occasionally stymieing the department’s efforts.

I asked HSD whether the nondisclosure agreement is supposed to prevent people who are on the Wednesday calls from telling outsiders about the location of priority encampments, as some have interpreted it.

Mundt said the agreement only refers to “conversations dealing with confidential [personally identifying information] as part of case conferencing and the shelter recommendation and referral process only” and “has nothing to do with the sharing of information related to priority encampment locations.”

Erica C. Barnett is a feminist, an urbanist, and an obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the quotidian inner workings of City Hall.

📸 Featured image is attributed to SoQ錫濛譙 (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license).

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