Managing information stored in bytes instead of on paper is something we should know how to do by now, right? I mean, I remember the early days in the 1990s when the Navy coped with the challenges of the “world wide web” and sailors having access to personal email at sea. Two notable scandals I worked to mitigate included a whackadoodle conspiracy theory website undermining the Navy’s anthrax vaccine program to the point that two of the Joint Chiefs actually declined the vaccine (hello, QAnon!), and a pedophile scumbag who solicited an investigative reporter posing as a 13-year-old girl over the internet… using his official command photo as a submarine captain to entice her.
Both of these things could, and do, happen today, sadly. Beyond the obvious bad actors that anyone using personal technology must wade past, we also have to be smart about our rights: to privacy, to free speech, and to understand what our government is doing. And these issues have come to a head in the U.S. Supreme Court and the state of New Mexico this week.
In Mahonoy Area School District v. B.L., the Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in the case of a 14-year-old JV cheerleader who didn’t make the varsity squad in 2014. On a weekend, off campus, she and a friend posted to her Snapchat account a photo of her with her middle finger extended and the caption: “Fuck school, fuck softball, fuck cheer, fuck everything.”
Obviously her parents would have been less than thrilled had they been following her on Snapchat. But because it was on Snapchat, it disappeared within 24 hours, and well before school started the following Monday. No matter. Someone took a screenshot and snitched, and the foul-mouthed cheerleader was subsequently thrown off the squad for a year. Her parents filed a federal lawsuit.
The school’s action for private speech that took place outside of school hours off campus is now set to become a landmark case that could determine how the First Amendment applies to 50 million public school students in their off-campus lives.
Supreme Court case aside, this is a great cautionary tale. High school girls are vicious. This could be a great lecture for your kids about social media if you can get them to look up from their phone for three minutes or so. This is why I love Snapchat for adolescents—that built in safety of the 24-hour delete has undoubtedly saved many college applications, security clearances and political careers. But it still can’t withstand the vitriol of a teenager.
Moving west 2,000 miles or so, another app with a self-delete feature is causing waves here in the Land of Enchantment. New Mexico Searchlight reported this week that the Children, Youth, and Families Department (CYFD) has made it policy for all employees to use the Signal app for work texts, and set the app to auto-delete all texts after 24 hours.
I happen to use the Signal app myself. It encrypts all text messages, and you can set all texts to auto delete within a specified period of time. I not only fear mean girls, but also Russian hackers, so I am a fan.
And if one considers CYFD’s client base, encryption does make sense. The amount of personally identifiable information (PII) that could be gleaned from texts about CYFD clients is worrisome. But that isn’t the story from NM Searchlight. It’s the requirement that all texts be set to auto-delete in 24 hours. That’s not okay. That eliminates key documentation provided by caseworkers working with our most vulnerable population: at-risk children. It is highly likely that a similar policy exists for deleting email.
There is no reason to delete this first-line documentation except to eliminate accountability and reduce liability for an agency serving our most high-stakes population. The choice I make to auto-delete my personal texts is not a luxury a state agency that holds children’s lives in its hands also enjoys. Combined with the rejection of legislation to allow for independent review of complaints against CYFD, CYFD is now an agency working in utter darkness. The Attorney General has opened an investigation into the text deletion matter; let’s hope for some light to be shed on the department.
Without a doubt technology has made the pandemic bearable and vaccine development and distribution successful in a way previously unseen by humankind. As always, with great power comes great responsibility.