Report: IRS, Other Agencies Not Storing Instant Messages

Monday, 21 Jul 2014 10:07 AM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Government agencies aren't storing Internet chat messages or cellphone texts, former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner's emails revealed this month, even though analysts say communications that may constitute official documents should be archived.

According to The Washington Times, only 2 out of 17 government agencies surveyed said they have policies that require instant messages to be stored as official records. Just one of the agencies said it doesn't allow people to text or chat, but another six said they don't have specific policies or are still working on language to cover such technology. Eight more did not respond to the newspaper's request for information.

Emily Grannis, a legal fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the Times such communications "have long been considered public records under state and federal freedom of information laws" and are often the only records of how some decisions are made.

The National Archives and Records Administration recommends that documents that don't get stored automatically be forwarded or pasted into emails to archive them. It recommends saving phone conversation records and voicemails, but it's not clear if government workers do that, the Times reported.

Earlier this month, Rep. Darrell Issa released an email written by Lerner that urged colleagues to be careful about what they put in their own messages because the information could be discovered by congressional investigators. Also released was a string of emails where Lerner inquired whether instant messages were saved and could be subpoenaed.

Meanwhile, if government workers use a commercial instant messaging service such as Skype, they can also delete their entire chat history records, the company reports.

"It is not possible to delete individual conversations on Skype," the company's Q&A page  says. However, a user can delete an entire conversation history, including instant messages, calls, voice messages, video messages, text messages, and sent and received files.

And when a conversation history has been deleted on Skype, the company reports, it cannot be recovered.

Christopher Horner, a conservative researcher who is trying to obtain chat and text messages from Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy, claimed some government employees use instant messages rather than email to avoid scrutiny, the Times reported.

Part of the problem with open-records laws, said Horner, is that they rely on government workers to police themselves, and generally document requests involve people who are trying to hide the most.

The two agencies that store instant messages are the Health and Human Services Department, which reported its computers don't have instant chat functions, but requires messages be treated the same as email, and the CIA, which said it stores instant messages and follows open records laws.

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