The list of people interested in Jared Kushner’s communications history keeps growing: This week, the White House advisor and presidential son-in-law voluntarily handed over documents to the Senate intelligence committee about his contacts with Russian government representatives during the presidential campaign and transition; House Democrats have demanded that the White House turn over all documents and communications referring to his Russian contacts; and special counsel Robert Mueller has asked the White House to preserve its records of meetings with the Russians—including the Trump Tower meeting that Donald Trump Jr. invited Kushner to join.
There could be, however, a blank spot in Kushner’s communications. Splinter has confirmed that Kushner downloaded an encrypted messaging application that permits users to send disappearing messages. The app, Signal, is one of a set of secure apps that have become popular among journalists and political operatives hoping to communicate securely and confidentially—and, if they choose, without a trace. The use of the app by White House officials has the potential to undermine the Presidential Records Act.
In February, according to Politico, former White House press secretary Sean Spicer ordered staffers to hand over their phones for a spot check aimed at cracking down on leaks to reporters. During the phone check, Spicer reportedly warned staffers not to use encrypted texting apps. While the presence of confidential texting apps on a staffer’s phone presumably raised suspicions about exactly what he or she was trying to hide, and from whom, Spicer specifically warned that using Signal was a violation of the act.
Last month, two watchdog groups sued the White House, claiming that widespread use of such apps violates the act and that the Trump Administration has failed to adopt policies to ensure that all communications about government business are retained.
But a phone number belonging to Kushner is registered in Signal (the app permits users to see which numbers in their contacts also use it). So is a phone number for Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen, who doesn’t work for the White House but remains in contact with Trump and his staff.
According to testimony Kushner gave to the investigators in the Senate this week, the Russian ambassador asked him in December if the Trump transition office had “a secure line in the transition office to conduct a conversation.” The transition office did not—and Kushner famously suggested using the Russian embassy’s gear—but it appears Kushner got savvy to secure communications after that.
A tweet from Elizabeth Spiers, who once worked for Kushner as editor-in-chief of the New York Observer, suggests Kushner downloaded the encrypted messaging app at the end of January just four days before his dad-in-law officially became president.
The White House did not respond to questions about whether Kushner uses the app, uses its disappearing messages feature, or how, if he’s using it, the White House is preserving those messages so as not to violate record retentions laws. Kushner himself did not respond to a Signal message, nor did he read it, according to the app, which indicates when a message has been delivered.
Cohen, when reached by phone, was unwilling to discuss his use of Signal.
“I’m not part of the campaign or the White House, and I’m not willing to confirm whether or not I use any apps,” he said. “Your questions to me are wholly inappropriate.”
If you have the Signal app on your phone, it will tell you who among your contacts uses the app. To find out if someone else has the app, you simply need to add their number to your phone.
“Being ‘on Signal’ is not intended to be a secret,” Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of Open Whisper Systems, which created Signal, wrote in an email. “Signal is used pretty extensively in government, has been approved for use in the US Senate, etc.”
After seeing the emails of prominent and not-so-prominent Democrats spilled onto the internet last year by the hackers who breached the accounts of the DNC and John Podesta, it’s understandable that people in Washington, D.C. are more concerned about cybersecurity. In March, the Senate’s Sergeant at Arms (SAA) approved the use of encrypted messaging apps Signal and Wickr and the virtual private network Freedome for use by Senate staff.
“The SAA Cybersecurity Department has evaluated three secure mobile messaging apps,” said an email sent to Senate staffers at the end of March. “This review confirmed no leaks to foreign governments and considers them to be ‘safe and secure’ for use by Senate staff on Senate provided devices.”
But Congress doesn’t have the record retention requirements that federal agencies and the White House do. If Kushner is using Signal for government communication, whether because he’s wary of being hacked by Russia or because he’s scared of surveillance closer to home, he would need to preserve those records. Next time he’s testifying before Congress, it’s a question lawmakers should ask him.
This story was produced by the Special Projects Desk of Gizmodo Media Group.
Disclosure: My husband is the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation which acts as the non-profit fiscal sponsor for Open Whisper Systems.