Are encryption apps sinking open government in Harris County?

"The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know."

You could call it the "core principle" for keeping government honest, words deeply embedded in the Texas Public Information Act, the legal dictate institutionalizing transparency for the taxpayer.


"The law is the law. When you are a public official, and you are dealing with public information, if the public asks for it, they get it," said Chris Tritico, FOX 26 Legal Analyst.

And yet since TPIA'S passage in 1972 many elected officials and others in public service have sought to keep secrets and conduct business in the shadows, an "end run" on transparency aided by rapidly advancing technology.

"It's a long-standing problem. It's only getting worse," said Bill Aleshire, former Travis County Judge and volunteer lawyer for the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation.

Getting "worse" because potentially unscrupulous public servants now have access to encrypted messaging services like Signal, allowing just about anyone who engages the app near total privacy in communication.

"It's pretty foolproof," said Dr. Rakesh Verma, an encryption expert with the University of Houston.


Verma says the "end to end" capacity of Signal to first transmit a message and then instantly erase it offers the opportunity to securely conduct all manner of business without detection or a record.

"The fact that (public officials) have the signal app on their phone can be a flag, right. It's a slippery slope I would say," said Verma.

Worse than slippery says Judge Aleshire.

"It's insidious because the evidence that would show a violation is instantly destroyed."

Turns out, subscription to the Signal app is alarmingly common among elected and appointed Harris County Officials. Both Commissioner Adrian Garcia and Commissioner Rodney Ellis are listed as users along with Judge Lina Hidalgo.

At a recent press conference, FOX 26 asked Hidalgo and Ellis if they communicate with each other using Signal.

"I'm on it. A lot of people are on this system. I don't think we talk to each other on it," said Hidalgo


FOX 26 asked why either official needed an encrypted messaging system.

"Man, I have Slack. I have Signal. I have WhatsApp. I haven't used some of them in years," said Hidalgo.

FOX 26 asked Hidalgo why did not want to avoid the potential of having governmental conversations in what amounts to a "technological black box"?

"I don't have governmental conversations on Signal," said Hidalgo

Trouble is, Hidalgo can't prove she isn't and FOX 26 can't prove she is, and therein lies the problem.

"It’s problem, on top of problem on top of problem. It troubles me on many fronts, that they (government officials) would even have it on their phone troubles me, because the appearance of impropriety is enough for the public to lose faith in these officials. They need to be able to explain how this is not a problem and I don't know how they can," said Tritico.

"You won't catch this without a whistleblower," said Aleshire.


Aleshire, who helped draft the original transparency law, contends that if Texas Lawmakers are truly committed to open government, they have big time work to do.

"With these kinds of apps that don't create a record they could feel pretty safe conducting an absolute illegal meeting. It is a real opportunity to sink transparency in Texas."

It is only fair to note that the transparency challenge is "non-partisan" in nature.

FOX 26 has detected Signal accounts connected to the personal phones of Houston-area Congressmen Troy Nehls, Dan Crenshaw and Randy Weber, who are all members of the Republican Party.