In Ohio, Self-Deleting Text Apps in Government Are Off Limits

At the risk of paying for data recovery efforts out of pocket, public officials in the state should keep away from covert texting applications.

by Randy Ludlow, The Columbus Dispatch / July 23, 2018

(TNS) — Government officials using emails and text messages to handle public business in Ohio had best avoid apps and software that instantly or automatically delete their digital communications.

Under state law, no public records can be destroyed unless authorized by a public office's records retention schedule that specifies how long records must be kept before they are destroyed.

And, if electronic messages are illegally deleted, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled a decade ago that government officials must pay the costs of attempting to recover them and, if successful, turn them over for inspection.

A public official's use of an app that automatically destroys a digital or electronic public record would violate state law, said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio News Media Association.

"It is clear under Ohio law, as it should be, that the nature of the content of the communications, not the device or server used, should determine if it is a public record. That includes emails and text messages. There are many easy, best practices that public officials can and should follow to make sure these records are preserved," said Hetzel, also president of the Ohio Coalition for Open Government.

"Any person who has spent more than 30 seconds in the world of politics knows exactly what will happen if personal devices become exempt from open-records laws. That is what will be used for any and all important communications about government business, and there will be fewer records — and fewer meaningful public meetings — with a resulting loss in transparency and accountability.

"There are plenty of ways already for public officials to have preliminary dialogue and discussion outside the public eye. And that's perfectly appropriate in many situations. So let's not weaponize digital secrecy," Hetzel said.

If a public official uses a personal cellphone for government business, those communications are public record and must be preserved. Those of a personal nature are not public and are protected from release.

©2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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