Telegram: the self-destructing message app 'used to sidestep public record laws'

Several San Francisco supervisors are reportedly using the app

San Francisco lawmakers are reportedly using Telegram, a self-destructing message app, as a way to avoid public record disclosure laws as governments struggle with tech companies over privacy issues.

California’s Public Record Act says that text messages and emails by city official are considered public record if they are related to business.

An unnamed San Francisco government member has told tech site The Information that they were encouraged to use the Telegram app by colleagues in City Hall to bypass public record laws.

Several San Francisco supervisors are reportedly using the app.

Telegram has a “secret chat” feature where messages are deleted after a selected period of time of being read on both the recipient and the sender devices. They are not stored on cloud servers or local cache, which makes it a better tool if users want their information to stay private.

The app has received sustained attention since the attacks in Paris, since some have claimed that it is being used to recruit extremists and then plan attacks.

“Our mission is to provide a secure means of communication that works everywhere on the planet. In order to do that in the places where it is most needed, we have to process legitimate requests to take down illegal public content,” the Telegram team have said.

LeeAnn Pelham, executive director of the San Francisco Ethics Commission told the Information that the laws have to evolve.

“If folks are doing the public’s business, that’s something policies have to evolve over time to capture,” she said.

WhatsApp, which unlike Telegram does not have a secret messaging feature, is about to add encrypted video chats to its app, according to reports this week.

The Facebook-owned company is looking to further bulk up the security of its messaging app as the dispute between Apple and the FBI over whether the tech giant should unlock a phone used by one of the San Bernardino killers is growing more contentious by the day. 

John Wonderlich, interim policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, an advocacy group for open government, expects a debate around public records to fire up as encrypted messaging apps continue to go mainstream, according to the report.

“This has been talked about a lot as something we will be concerned about. It makes sense it starts in San Francisco,” he said.