President Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, has resorted to random phone checks on White House staff members in a bid to stop stories from leaking to the media—news of which promptly leaked to the press over the weekend.
As Politico reports, Spicer told staffers in an emergency meeting to dump their devices on a table as part of a “phone check” to prove they had nothing to hide. He also reportedly warned them that the use of secure messaging apps like Signal and Confide violated national record-keeping laws, while White House lawyers looked on.
It’s unclear, however, if Spicer’s “phone check” turned up any compromising material, or if simply having the messaging apps in the first place was grounds for suspicion.
The apps in question, which offer tools like encrypted communications or disappearing messages, are not new. But they have soared in popularity since the Presidential election, including among political types.
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In the case of Confide, the app was reportedly taken up by Republican staffers who liked the fact its messages can disappear Snapchat-style. Ironically, though, Confide has a poor reputation among security experts, who agree Signal is the gold standards for secure communications.
Such distinctions could matter little, however, if Spicer had access to the phones and can open the apps, which can reveal who a person has contacted—even if the message contents have disappeared.
As for the record-keeping laws, they could prove to be trouble if the staffers used the secure apps to conduct government business. As the Obama administration explained last year, the National Archivist now works to collect everything from “tweets to snaps” as part of a long time mandate to preserve records from the White House. To collect such records, there are laws in place requiring the President and his staff to preserve relevant communications.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear if Spicer’s “phone check” will do much to halt the White House leak. As some have pointed out on Twitter (TWTR), there are easy ways to staffers to subvert the effort:
The fuss over Spicer and the leaks come at a time when President Trump is facing an unfamiliar challenge when it comes to the press. As the New York Times explained, Trump’s experience manipulating the tabloid media in New York has not proved effective in Washington, where a veteran political press corps relies on a deep layer of sources in the federal government to obtain information.