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Defense Digital Service Director Violated Policy by Using Signal App, IG Says

Evidence suggests outgoing DDS Director Brett Goldstein also encouraged subordinates to use the encrypted messaging app.

The Defense Department’s internal watchdog concluded the outgoing director of the Defense Digital Service used an encrypted messaging app not approved by the Pentagon to conduct official business. 

The DOD Office of Inspector General concluded in a report released Monday DDS Director Brett Goldstein, who is set to step down at the end of the month after a two-year term, violated DOD policy by using and encouraging subordinates to use Signal, an encrypted messaging and voice calling platform. While Goldstein tried to get Signal approved for use, investigators found no evidence that he was successful in doing so. 

While encrypted messaging is safer—which Goldstein cited as the reason he used Signal—government employees are subject to rules and legislation like the Freedom of Information Act and other open-records laws that require messages to be archived. In 2017, an advocacy group claimed in a lawsuit the Environmental Protection Agency failed to comply with an open-records request for documents related to employees’ use of Signal. 

Because Signal prevents third parties from accessing messages or calls, using the app to discuss official DOD information doesn’t comply with FOIA requirements of DOD record retention policies, according to the OIG report. According to the report, 11 of Goldstein’s subordinates used Signal, five of whom told OIG there was a perception that the app was used to discuss classified or sensitive information. 

“Additionally, four of the 11 subordinates told us that there was a perception that Signal was used to avoid complying with the [FOIA] requirements and DOD’s records retention policies,” the report reads. “For example, one subordinate told us that he or she believed the intent in using Signal was to conceal messages from official records and to be able to ‘deny the existence of a communication.’”

DOD OIG also investigated claims that Goldstein did not treat subordinates with dignity and respect, but concluded that these claims were not sufficiently supported by the evidence. Investigators also decided there is not enough evidence to support allegations that Goldstein treated female employees differently than male employees.

“We’ve worked hard to create a positive and secure work environment at DDS, especially during the pandemic and while working remotely,” a DDS spokesperson told Nextgov in an email statement. “Brett has always held DDS employees to an extraordinarily high standard due to the nature and importance of the projects we work on. We are pleased that the report confirms this and shows there was no evidence for the allegations.” 

The DDS spokesperson did not provide a comment on the portion of the report focused on the use of Signal when asked.