First on CNN: DHS to stop wiping phones without backups


Washington CNN  — 

The Department of Homeland Security will immediately stop wiping mobile devices of high-level officials and political appointees without backing them up and will launch a 30-day review of policies and practices for retaining text messages and other electronic messages.

This comes after weeks of heavy criticism over lost text messages at the Secret Service and revelations that the phones of top former DHS officials Ken Cuccinelli and Chad Wolf were wiped after they left office.

The moves were announced in a memo sent to department leaders on Thursday.

The memo stressed that the items to be retained include email, social media messages, instant messages and text messages.

“DHS agencies and offices are directed to preserve either the actual mobile devices (and accompanying access information) or complete fully accessible backups of all device content for all members of the Senior Executive Service or equivalent and political appointees, whenever such an employee departs or would have their device replaced or wiped for any reason,” Chief Information Officer Eric Hysen and General Counsel Jonathan Meyer wrote in the memo.

A working group at Homeland Security will review best practices in federal and private sector organizations and provide recommendations to the department regarding training for employees, options for automating backing up text messages and chats, the possibility of restricting electronic messages and department policies for retaining electronic messages.

“As technology continues to rapidly evolve, the working group will ensure DHS continues to comply with all applicable laws, regulations, and guidance so as to fully meet the expectations of Congress and our other oversight entities, other key stakeholders, and the American public,” Chief Information Officer Eric Hysen and General Counsel Jonathan Meyer wrote in a memo to DHS leaders.

Department officials familiar with how the agency will implement changes told CNN that under current policy, text messages pertaining to agency business must be retained if there isn’t another record of the information.

A 2018 DHS directive regarding text message retention notes that not all text messages are considered official federal records and that “any communication in which an Agency decision or commitment is made or where an action is committed to, that is not otherwise documented, needs to be captured.”

But for nearly all department employees, emails are retained automatically and over a longer period of time. And for higher-level employees, such as political appointees and top deputies, records retention rules are more stringent than for regular employees.

For example, all emails for those in the top posts are preserved. But it was left to individuals to decide whether to preserve text messages. So DHS is now exploring shifting that responsibility from the individual to instead automate retention. The working group will focus on finding options for possibly automatically retaining those communications.

The officials noted the technology around texting is different than email, largely because of systems like encrypted IMessage, which presents a challenge in automatically capturing communications.

The officials also told CNN that DHS is exploring restricting text messages or other chats. Secret Service Director James Murray issued a memo to employees on Wednesday indicating that texting may be disabled on that agency’s mobile phones.

This story has been updated with additional details.