California Police Officers Used Self-Destructing Messaging App For Years

from the TigerText-also-destroys-reputations! dept

The Long Beach Police Department has bravely struck a blow against police accountability. An investigation by Al Jazeera uncovered use of self-deleting messaging by the department.

Current and former officers from the Long Beach Police Department in Southern California have told Al Jazeera that their police-issued phones had Tiger Text installed on them.

The Tiger Text app is designed to erase text messages after a set time period. Once the messages have been deleted, they cannot be retrieved – even through forensic analysis of the phone.

The police officers who spoke with Al Jazeera said the confidential messaging system was used to share details of police operations and sensitive personnel issues.

This may be true. But even if this was the full extent of TigerText usage, it’s still a problem. Personnel issues can become matters of public interest, especially in civil rights lawsuits. Details of police operations are normally inaccessible to the public, but in rare cases, these too become matters of public interest.

On top of that, there’s a good possibility some of these vanished discussions may have been pertinent to criminal trials. Defendants should have the chance to obtain relevant discussions that may help their defense, but Tiger Text ensures information that prosecutors might be obligated to turn over to the defense is now completely inaccessible.

In fact, the Al-Jazeera article quotes two former officers as claiming their superiors told them to use TigerText specifically to prevent conversations from being discoverable. The department has denied giving officers these instructions, but former officers claim the PD’s participation in the discovery process is anything but “on the up and up.”

The Long Beach PD had more than 100 officers using TigerText to preemptively destroy possible public records and/or evidence. The use of self-destructing messages, if nothing else, violates record preservation laws. Depending on what disappeared into the ether, there’s a good chance criminal cases were also affected by the rolling destruction of communications.

It didn’t take long for the Long Beach PD to reverse course after having its shady texting exposed. The LA Times reports the department has already officially ditched TigerText.

The Long Beach Police Department has suspended its use of a mobile texting application that permanently erases messages after civil liberties advocates and media outlets raised concerns that the app could be used to hide evidence useful to the other side in criminal and civil court cases.

In a statement, the city said the decision to halt the use of TigerText came “pending further review of whether the use is consistent with the city’s record retention policy and administrative regulations for the use of mobile devices.”

The PD claims it used TigerText as a stopgap solution when it moved away from Blackberry phones. Supposedly the search for an encrypted messaging system led the LBPD to this program, despite there being plenty of other options on the market in 2014. I guess the built-in autodelete feature was a pleasant bonus. TigerText was originally developed for the medical industry to allow care providers to send sensitive patient information to each other. The self-destruct feature helped hospitals comply with HIPAA regulations — both by encrypting communications and ensuring records no longer needed were removed from issued phones.

To its credit, the swift abandonment of TigerText means future violations will be minimal. The PD has also promised to release more info about the department’s utilization of the messaging app, including which officers and commanders used the app. But the damage that has been done probably can’t be undone. If no messages were archived, the last four years of TigerText communications no longer exist. Nothing can be proven one way or another and taxpayers who paid $10,000 a year to help the PD destroy public records will just have to take the department’s word that nothing illegal or unconstitutional occurred while TigerText was in use. That’s a giant leap of faith most people won’t make. If the Long Beach PD didn’t have a trust issue before, it definitely has one now.

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Comments on “California Police Officers Used Self-Destructing Messaging App For Years”

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Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

The Tree of Deception (not disapeared)

The police are just trying to aid the prosecutors in their preparations for Brady material. It’s not such a bad thing, if it doesn’t actually exist any longer, then it is not discoverable. Easy peasy. /s

The thing is, those communications are public records, they work for the public, and with some limitations they KNOW that they are required to be able to produce those records.

Now, since that app came from higher ups, and with instructions on how to use (which could mean technical or practical, without more detail who knows?) the app, there is culpability not just at the user level, but in the chain of command. How high up does it go? When who writes the budget, and who approves the budget and the product get bought, how could any of them be left out?

Since the messages are legally required to be available if needed, then there is no question about whether a law has been broken. What remains is politics. Where does the blame get put? What does the blamee get in return for accepting that blame (extra pensions, under the table payments, something from the union rather than the department)? And, let us not forget, those who should have been in the know, and were likely in the know (whether they share blame or not) are actually as guilty as the end users who texted things they KNEW would not be discoverable, and managed, somehow, to escape blame.

Christenson says:

Re: The Tree of Deception (not disapeared)

I suggest that San Diego has four years of convictions that now have a reasonable chance of being tossed out.

The public outcry when some of those convicts are released ideally will cause a few officials to lose their jobs.

Unfortunately, that’s an ideal…most likely the judges tossing the convictions will have re-election problems instead.

So What.... says:

Big Deal

This article is simply ridiculous. There is simply no law that says that 100% of all communications by police need to be available to the public. Why does the author default to it clearly being a negative and that there must be all sorts of funny business going on by the police? How about default to supporting them and it being a positive article? Is there anyone here that thinks we need to know when an officer tells his super that he has to go take a shit? Or their hemmoroids are acting up again and they need to come off patrol? Every technology is used for bad purposes..that doesnt mean its the default and everyones rights ate violated. The police don’t care if they ban Tiger or Signal, they have their ways of communicating privately with each other…we should not make it harder for them to do so thus wasting time and money.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Big Deal

Because they are public servants. Do we want to know when they need or want to take a shit? No, unless it happens at the same time as they claim to be apprehending, or observing, or interacting with a suspect. What if the ‘shit’ time corresponds with a shooting (provable by forensics that it was the officers gun) that is not near the ‘shit place’? What do we believe then?

There are other things that might be ‘discoverable’ for the defense. All of them must be available.

There are some things that are not our business. There is some difference between what we think is our business and what they think is our business, but they work for us. The difference between what we think and what they think is not for them to decide. It is up to a court. Not them, not their union, the court. What is the court going to decide against? Things not pertinent to the instant case. The case might be criminal or the case might be about how the agency conducts their business. Depending on the case in front of the court, all communication are pertinent until determined not to be.

Otherwise, we give in to them, and that is just not acceptable.

So What.... says:

Re: Re: Big Deal

Their radios are recorded and the body cam records all that anyway. So we ban using a technology because an officer might shoot someone…lie about the shooting “wasnt me!” and then forensics would be used to prosecute the cop? Well we better ban guns so that doesnt happen…
Listen to scanner of any police department for a few hours..listen how many times someone radios someone else to “call me on my cell..or “lets meet in parking lot X to chat”. Do we make them record their personal cell phones? Or maybe we dont let them speak verbally to one another? Are civil rights being violated? Is this how cops go corrupt and then we give in to them? Ridiculous. And yes…they are public servants..they are not public slaves nor does a public servant work for you.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Big Deal

Their radios are recorded and the body cam records all that anyway.

I have to assume that you’re joking there, given the number of “malfunctions” of cameras and recorders that have happened during the past few years whenever something questionable involving officers has occurred.

So What.... says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Big Deal

Too many uneducated people on police protocol here. You cannot get around body cams anymore (early ones you could) and the cams have captured millions of hours of arrests..including catching police officers doing illegal things. The cameras fail so little now its not measurable. If an officers fails to turn on the camera another 5 have it on too. And people are wrong about if the messaging app is used then things can get tossed. Its the same as if 2 officers speak about you in person. Its not recorded and its not against policy. If asked, all they do is swear out an affidavit or testify about what they spoke about.
“Officer, were you violating my client’s rights when you were concealing evidence and being a corrupt asshole when you used that messaging app?” “No sir..i was telling my boss I have to take a shit.” “are you certain you were not concealing evidence that would exonerate my client?” “not unless the evidence was concealed in my double onion enchilada ass blow I was squirting out..”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Big Deal

You cannot get around body cams anymore

Funny how platoons of policemen still manage to have all their body cams fail at the exact same time then, isn’t it?

Its not recorded and its not against policy

You say that like it’s not also one of the shittier practices to get someone to confess which are criticized.

Funnily enough, "cops have to take a shit" was used to criticize the usage of body cams too. Because $2 field tests falsely flagging tea leaves as weed and sugar as crack from rummaged garbage is acceptable, but it’s the fucking end times if a cop is caught on camera.

Maybe you should have thought more instead of touting your mantras of "if you have nothing to fear you have nothing to hide" and "fuck citizen-accessible encryption", huh?

So What.... says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Big Deal

You guys are meatheads..on the news you see the .001% of when something is controversial.. Youtube is filled with claims of racism and cops doing bad shit..and then the body cams get released. Almost every instance is proven false. Right now 100,000 cops are recording all the stupid motherfuckers that deserve it and in almost every instance the camera video works and proves the officer was right and the moron getting arrested was in fact..a moron. Where i am sitting right now..i can see two cops cars sitting together and talking.. I dont think they are recording it! Holy shit our rights are being violated!! I want access to those conversations as they are cops which means the are hiding something..OMG!!! WE HAVE BEEN SUBJUGATED!!!
Let them talk about taking a shit in peace.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 "Meatheads"

Right there is where you lost me. If you have no respect for those with opposing views, how do you expect them to have respect for you?

While your argument (that anecdotal data is weak) is valid, it raises the matter that we don’t have statistical data from an impartial source, largely due to efforts by the Department of Justice to obfuscate what data exists (and regarding this we do have statistical data going as far back as the mid 20th century).

Government by the people depends on transparency. As we have nearly zero transparency, a clear data trail that shows proper procedure was followed at all times, that public rights were considered always. Without that, the public can’t govern, and the state agencies are in control.

That’s what a police state is. Autocracy by state agents.

Law enforcement officers are treated by the US legal system entirely differently than civilians, and for that we do have statistical data. It’s clear they are regard as a higher caste than the rest of us proles. This just isn’t disputable given the data we have.

It’s time to go back to school So What…. to learn what makes an argument or not.

So What.... says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Big Deal

My entire point was the article was poorly written as a slam piece on police officers simply because they have the capabilty to speak to each other privately. The author could have written a well balanced article about the pros and cons but instead wrote an article that made wild assumptions about officers and how they operate, entirely negative. And wild claims of rights beling violated as the default status are ludicrous. There is simply no branch of government anywhere in the USA at any level that is fully transparent. Yet we are nowhere near a police state. I lived in one for a long time. The USA is fucking heaven.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Big Deal

written as a slam piece on police officers simply because they have the capabilty to speak to each other privately

Congratulations, you just summed every single argument used to justify encryption backdoors in civilian gadgetry.

wild assumptions about officers and how they operate

Like every single time the worst is assumed of a civilian because, horror of horrors, his mobile phone uses password protection! Or maybe his computer uses CCleaner, he must have downloaded pornography!

There is simply no branch of government anywhere in the USA at any level that is fully transparent

Ah, the old "nothing is fully transparent therefore nothing has to be" excuse.

Yet we are nowhere near a police state. I lived in one for a long time. The USA is fucking heaven.

You don’t magically stop being a pile of shit just because your shit is smaller than the bigger pile of shit you come across.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Big Deal

The problem is simple, police have already shown they are both able and willing to to dodge accountability (ex. body cams).

Given that fact, why would we expect them not to take advantage of this potential?

Yes it would likely waste time and money to force police to use other communication tools, but that can be argued about other stuff.

Body cams can be argued a waste of time and money because officers can easily get around them. Police testimony can be argued a waste of time and money because officers may chose to lie about some aspects, meaning it can drag out the case if those lies may be disproven.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Lies, failing cams, destruction of public record

What we’re establishing here (in that they do all these things and it is evident) is that the common law enforcement officer is no better a witness, and has no better a code of honor than the common street criminal, despite that they are held in higher regard by our courts of law.

Just because they have the job of keeping peace and enforcing laws and the motto to serve and protect doesn’t mean they actually do these things. In fact, it seems more often they’re serving entirely different intentions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Big Deal

How do you determine when a conversation becomes public record? Are we to record every single conversation that a police officer has?

I agree that this seems fishy on the surface, but then I realize that officers can have face-to-face conversations too. And this might be viewed as just a technological extension of face-to-face conversations.

What the situation reeks of, imho, is a situation where we need to have clearly defined standards.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Big Deal

The reality is that most cops have two cells. One official phone issued by the department, and their personal cell they bought and pay for themselves.

I guarantee that the moment the department eliminated the encrypted app on the official cell, the officers just switched to talking to each other on their personal phones, either by voice phone calls or using the same self-destructing text app.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

The proper recourse then...

Might be to retroactively acquit anyone convicted if an officer involved in the arrest or investigation of the case used the Tiger Text app for work communication during the interim the case was open.

Use of the app during this period indicates an agent of state was destroying evidence. That said evidence might have been incriminating, exonerating or neither becomes irrelevant once it can no longer be reviewed. It’s gone.

When correct police protocol is not followed, and the rights of the public are ignored, it is the state — including its taxpayers — who must suffer the consequences, which means letting potentially dangerous people go free, so that innocent lives are not falsely imprisoned.

Of course nowadays, we believe none of that Blackstone’s formulation business anymore.

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