While many of the groups that took part in last year’s siege on the U.S. Capitol turned to Facebook and Telegram groups to plan their part in the attack, the Oath Keepers—a far-right org that’s best described as somewhere between a militia and a rag-tag group of wannabe vigilantes—are alleged to be bigger fans of the encrypted chat app Signal, instead.
In court filings that were made public this week following the arrest of 10 Oath Keeper members and the group’s leader Stewart Rhodes for their alleged role in the Capitol riots, authorities claim that they were able to access multiple invite-only chatrooms where group members coordinated their role in the riots. Authorities describe detailed meetings discussing everything from combat and firearms training to the uniforms Oath Keeper members were going to wear the day of. What’s less clear is how these encrypted chats were divulged in the first place.
The court docs describe how on November 5th, 2020—two days after the last presidential election—Rhodes messaged this secret chat (which was literally dubbed “Leadership intel sharing secured”) to let fellow members know they should refuse to accept Joe Biden’s victory over then-President Donald Trump, and that the group wouldn’t “[get] through this without a civil war.” Two days later, he sent another message that they “must now do what the people of Serbia did when Milosevic stole their election. Refuse to accept it and march en-mass on the nation’s Capitol.”
The rest of the documents go on to describe what allegedly happened in the two months that followed: Rhodes and his fellow conspirators held more meetings in more private Signal groups to discuss how they’d stop the lawful transfer of power—nonviolently at first, but then escalating to military-style combat tactics overtime. There were meetings to discuss “unconventional warfare,” “convoy operations,” and the sorts of firearms they were planning to bring to the upcoming “massively bloody revolution” they were planning.
While it’s clear that these docs lay out some pretty horrific chats happening over Signal, it’s less clear how authorities were able to access these chats in the first place. Law enforcement has clashed with this particular app for years while trying to glean information on suspects that use it, and Signal often publicly brushed those attempts off.
In 2018, Signal’s developers told Australian authorities that it wouldn’t be able to comply with the country’s new Assistance and Access Law even if it wanted to because each message’s encrypted contents are protected by keys that were “entirely inaccessible” to the people running the app. More recently, authorities in California tried multiple times to get the company to budge on the issue and comply with the state’s subpoena requests, only to be met with the same responses each time.
“Just like last time, we couldn’t provide any of that,” Signal’s team wrote in a blog post at the time. “ It’s impossible to turn over data that we never had access to in the first place.” Heck, even recent FBI training docs that were obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests reveal that the agency can’t access people’s chats on the app!
So what stunt did the DOJ pull to get into these months-long planning chats? It’s tough to say. It’s possible that one of the Oath Keeper members that was privy to these chatrooms cooperated with authorities and handed the details over. There’s also always the possibility of user error in how the Signal app was set up.
Another theory is that authorities gained access to these chats by gaining access to one of the defendants’ locked devices—last year, the FBI turned to a shady Australian hacking firm in order to access device details from an iPhone belonging to one of the terrorists involved in the 2015 San Bernardino shooting. Apple, which had previously refused to cooperate with authorities trying to crack into its devices, later sued the firm for infringing on the tech giant’s copyright. In 2020, rumors spread that a company like the one the FBI used in the Apple case was able to break Signal’s encryption, a story that Signal’s founder quickly denied.
We’ve reached out to Signal about the case and will update this story when we hear back.