Education

Former Fresno Unified staffer speaks out about Cyber Dust

A signup screen for Cyber Dust touts the phone app’s primary feature: Messages vanish and are not stored, leaving no digital footprint.
A signup screen for Cyber Dust touts the phone app’s primary feature: Messages vanish and are not stored, leaving no digital footprint. Fresno Bee file

A former chief information officer for Fresno Unified says she was instructed by Superintendent Michael Hanson to use Cyber Dust – a controversial phone app that automatically erases messages – to discuss school district business last year.

But Micheline Golden, who worked alongside Hanson as the district spokeswoman for about a year before resigning in March, said she refused to use the self-erasing app, which touts its ability to leave no digital footprint.

“I let him know that I was very uncomfortable using it. My whole career – 20-plus years in communications – has been built on transparency and honesty, and anything that destroys information at a public agency isn’t ethical,” Golden said.

Every communication, she said, has been “done with the knowledge that it could at some point be shared with the public. That, for me, is the point of public agency communication. To have a program that destroys that just seems wrong.”

Golden said she had not previously heard of Cyber Dust and downloaded the app on her phone at Hanson’s request in April 2014, but immediately deleted it when she realized that it erased any history of his text messages. Golden said she never knew why Hanson wanted her to use the app or what he planned to use it for.

“I think he understood where I was coming from – about why I wouldn’t use it,” she said. “I was pretty forceful.”

I let [Hanson] know that I was very uncomfortable using [Cyber Dust]. My whole career – 20-plus years in communications – has been built on transparency and honesty, and anything that destroys information at a public agency isn’t ethical.

Former Fresno Unified Chief Information Officer Micheline Golden

Hanson told The Bee on Tuesday that he and a handful of senior staffers had used the app “as a trial run to see if it would help us do our work better and more effectively.” Hanson would not say who the other staff members were, but said no trustees used the app. Chief Financial Officer Ruthie Quinto said Wednesday that she also used Cyber Dust “to the best of my recollection, on a trial basis  for approximately three weeks.” Chief Operations Officer Karin Temple said she did not use the app.

District officials’ use of Cyber Dust surfaced in the midst of a federal investigation of the school district that focuses on no-bid construction contracts and demands a wide range of documents dating back to 2009 – including district officials’ personal phone records.

Hanson said the app was not used to discuss anything pertaining to the subject of the grand jury investigation, and that only about 10 text messages were exchanged using the app over a period of a few weeks.

Trustees Brooke Ashjian and Luis Chavez have questioned whether use of the app is illegal and would be considered a violation of the Public Records Act.

But Hanson said his use of Cyber Dust was “totally within our district policy around electronic records.” Fresno Unified’s electronic records policy, approved in 2010, says that the district “will not retain the electronic storage of instant messages and text messages for any period of time.”

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said it’s unclear whether public officials’ use of apps like Cyber Dust could be considered a violation of state law, but that officials who choose to use it are “legally skating on thin ice.”

Taxpayer dollars are funding these lines of communication, and I think all of that should be made public.

Fresno Unified Trustee Luis Chavez

“Having found out government employees were using this app, one would normally – and understandably – say they were deliberately trying to bypass the public records law and to destroy anything that might be hard to explain. The bottom line is, it’s not a good idea,” Scheer said. “If government officials said, ‘Let’s have all of our conversations on this issue by handwritten notes, but be sure to destroy them immediately after you receive them,’ I think most people would say that’s suspicious. This is the same thing.”

Chavez said he thinks it’s wrong for any public official to use an app like Cyber Dust.

“Taxpayer dollars are funding these lines of communication, and I think all of that should be made public,” he said. “As a public official you have a higher level of scrutiny when you’re utilizing public resources and everyone, in my opinion, should be kept accountable.”

Trustee Christopher De La Cerda said Wednesday, “I would not encourage the use of this type of application. I will always expect the staff and board members to be as open and transparent as possible moving forward.”

Other trustees are mostly staying quiet, but school board President Cal Johnson seemed unconcerned about the matter.

“Everyone has their own opinion about it, and mine is: I don’t use it, I’ve never used it and I’m not really upset about it,” Johnson said Wednesday. “I’m not going to get upset about anything. … I’m not going to be drawn into any discussion like that.”

Why did he think [Cyber Dust] was a necessary thing to have? Why is the board letting this happen? Why are they not asking these very same questions?

FREE Chairwoman Casey Lamonski

Tish Rice, president of the Fresno Teachers Association, said this is just the latest incident to fuel mistrust of school district administrators.

“Public officials shouldn’t be using an app like this for any reason whatsoever. People have lost faith and trust in the top leadership of the district,” Rice said. “They are accountable to the parents and the students and the employees that they serve, but they sure act like they can do whatever they want without any accountability.”

Anti-Hanson group to hold news conference Thursday

Fresnans for Responsibility and Ethics in Education – a political action committee created in response to the district’s no-bid contracts – is calling for Hanson to resign, and will hold a news conference on Thursday about the Cyber Dust allegations.

Casey Lamonski, chairwoman of FREE and a Fresno Unified parent, said the group is critical toward not only Hanson, but also the school board that employs him.

“Why did he think (Cyber Dust) was a necessary thing to have? Why is the board letting this happen? Why are they not asking these very same questions?” she said. “He’s an employee of Fresno Unified and the ultimate boss is the board. The board can ask for his resignation. We voted them to be in these positions. It’s unacceptable.”

The FREE news conference will be held outside of Bullard High School near Browning and Palm avenues at 2 p.m.

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays

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