With state officials exerting more power than ever as they confront the COVID pandemic, the public’s right to know has never been more important. Which is why advocates of government transparency are raising concerns over Pennsylvania’s records system that makes phone records all but obsolete.
A vending contract between the state of Pennsylvania and Verizon that utilizes Skype calling software has drastically cut short the amount of phone logs that can be obtained on certain state phone numbers through the Right to Know law, Delaware Valley Journal has learned.
With the new Skype software, office phone logs for government officials using the system can only stretch back for the most recent 30 days at any given time.
Delaware Valley Journal learned of the restrictive data sets after filing a RTK request seeking the phone logs for the cell phone and office phone for Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) Director Dr. Rachel Levine for several months in the beginning of 2020, just as the pandemic was beginning to hit.
The cell phone logs, which included the incoming or outgoing number, time and length of call and the date, were all easily supplied by the department.
However, the DOH then indicated it could not supply the months’ worth of logs for Levine’s office line because of the Skype system.
“The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s contract for telecommunications services held by Verizon expired on December 31, 2017,” a spokesperson for the DOH explained. “For its next generation of telecommunications services, the commonwealth engaged in a competitive procurement process that resulted in awards to multiple suppliers” for those services.
“Also, we are not referring to the Skype app used for video calls on smartphones,” the spokesperson continued. “This is Skype for Business, an enterprise-grade unified communications solution that includes voice phone services, voice/video conferencing and other capabilities that is used by multiple commonwealth agencies.”
Regardless of the “grade” of the application used, an attorney for the department revealed the Skype software did not archive the kind of information most people are used to seeing on their own cell phone bills every month — the exact kind of information the DOH easily produced for Levine’s cell phone.
“I tried to discuss with IT on obtaining additional records, but it just does not look like additional information is actually stored anywhere, whether through Skype itself or via Verizon,” a department attorney told DVJ.
Having only the most recent 30 days’ worth of logs could remarkably hinder any number of ways government officials are held accountable via transparency, not just by journalists, but also from auditors, citizens — sometimes even criminal investigators.
The curtailed amount of records now means journalists or auditors would have to contemporarily request the records knowing that an issue needing oversight was already unfolding, something that can be very difficult to know.
For example, after the Flint water crisis emerged in Michigan in 2014, reporters and investigators tried to obtain a variety of documents dating as far back to 2011 to help them piece together what decisions were made and by whom.
Freedom of information laws, whether at the state or federal level, have sometimes struggled to keep up with technological changes.
“I appreciate the state’s effort to save money by using new telecommunications technology,” said Susan Schwartz, president of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition. “But government officials need to keep in mind the importance of keeping a record of their actions.
“By allowing the phone records of Secretary Levine to be erased, the state has deprived the public of important insights into how decisions were made during the coronavirus emergency. Knowing who has the ear of our government officials – and who our officials choose to talk with – is vital.
“There’s an easy solution,” Schwartz continued. “For a big customer like the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, telecommunication providers should be able to retain phone records indefinitely, or turn those logs over to the state for permanent storage. Such data files wouldn’t take much storage space on today’s computers. The state should make keeping such records a part of any such contracts.”
Other transparency advocates agreed.
“It is disappointing and concerning that records which were once easily obtained are now apparently subject to various barriers to access purely as a result of technology,” said Melissa Melewsky, an attorney who specializes in the Right to Know Law for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
“As we move further into the digital age, the administration — and all levels of government — must ensure that technology does not inhibit or prohibit transparency and accountability, which are absolutely necessary for proper government function. Government functions best when it is open and accountable to the public it serves, and technology cannot be a means to thwart transparency.”
The issue of short phone logs seems to mainly be an issue with phones for officials at the state level, meaning smaller governments — like school districts, law enforcement offices and county governments — should not be affected, unless they have also adopted a new technology that keeps a curtailed log.
An important case from 2016-17 in Centre County illustrates the importance of being able to obtain phone logs outside of the most recent 30 days.
In 2014-15, several criminal defense attorneys alleged local judges were showing a systematic bias toward the county district attorney at the time, Stacy Parks Miller. Those attorneys used the RTK law to request text messages, emails and phone logs in an effort to prove that Parks Miller was too cozy with some members of the judiciary, and that it was affecting the ability for an impartial trial.
The issue of disappearing data is not confined just to phone logs.
In Colorado, for example, the Denver Post recently tried to obtain email records related to the pandemic from May, but was told in many cases those communications may have been automatically deleted after 90 days by the email software.