Why has a privacy app used by Edward Snowden hit the NBA, NFL and NCAA?

Stricter tampering penalties have NBA general managers rethinking how they communicate.
Stricter tampering penalties have NBA general managers rethinking how they communicate.

Scroll through the messaging app Signal, and it reads like a Page Six of the sports world. The boldfaced names span from the underworld to the executive suites, encompassing those on the biggest stages to the players behind the scenes.

There's the father of the country's top basketball recruit, and he's listed alongside top executives in the NFL and NBA. There are plenty of college football and basketball coaches, mixed in with the agents, runners and street hustlers who dominate basketball's black market.

There are star athletes seeking privacy, university officials attempting to sidestep public-records requests and folks at every level of sport seeking the superior security the app boasts.

In an environment where tampering issues loom over professional sports and a widespread federal investigation still lingers over the NCAA landscape, the desire for privacy, encryption and even disappearing messages has increased. And that's why Signal, long the private messaging domain to evade or pry information from the alphabet soup of Washington power brokers – FBI, NSA and CIA – has surged into the NFL, NBA, NCAA and beyond.

Signal was considered transformative upon its inception in 2010 for its ability to increase transparency in political reporting and protect whistleblowers. Wired Magazine called it "the security community's gold standard for surveillance-resistant communications." NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden once said he used the app every day. Added Jonathan Kaufman, the director of Northeastern University's School of Journalism: "For political reporters right now, it's as common a tool as a notebook or a pencil."

An app that went mainstream in the political world to increase transparency has actually taken on the opposite role in the sports world. For public schools in college sports, the app has emerged as an outlet to avoid detection from Freedom Of Information Act requests. In the professional sports world, it's used to combat the uptick in tampering enforcement. In college sports, it's an aide to the pervasive and creative methods to avoid NCAA amateurism rules.

Signal is viewed as the safest encryption app available. Kaufman said the messages remain secure and can't be compromised or intercepted "without a hell of a lot of effort." And while it doesn't allow for the full allotment of GIFs and emoticons of traditional text banter, it's a place where information, documents and even phone calls can be conducted with increased discretion.

"Our general counsel encouraged us to get on Signal," said a high-ranking collegiate athletic official. "There's auto-delete based on the rules you set, and that helps us avoid FOIA requests. ...It's become the main method of communication between the administration and our [athletic] staff."

The use of the app for privacy can be beneficial in numerous ways. Think of Signal as a more secure version of WhatsApp, a popular texting app that is separate from a cell phone's traditional texting app. With Signal, all the messages, photos and documents passed back and forth are encrypted, and the app makers brag about the security on its website.

Perhaps most important is that Signal does not have access to the message, which in theory means that no outside entity can use legal means to access the conversations.

That extra level of security has nudged Signal from the purview of security officials, whistleblowers and reporters in Washington to all levels of sports. Multiple prominent people in basketball caught up in the federal investigation are using the app, as the amount of runners, middlemen and agents on the app make it a handy underworld directory. (NCAA investigators appear wise to this; many of them have joined in the past few weeks.) "It's striking to me how mainstream Signal has become," Kaufman said. "To some of us, it used to feel like something out of a James Bond movie."

One grassroots source said the app has been filled with so many basketball underworld characters that it doubles as a source of amusement. "My favorite thing to do is open it up once in a while and see who is on there," he said. "It's exactly who you would think would be on there."

In the NBA and NFL, Signal spans every level from players to executives. In the wake of a round of NBA free agency where news of deals were broken prior to the formal start of free agency, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced stricter enforcement of rules for tampering and salary-cap circumvention. The NBA even distributed a memo this week that appeared to target the use of Signal, saying teams can't use communication methods that auto-delete.

In the post-deflate-gate NFL, players, agents and executives took cues from the league weaponizing Tom Brady's text messages and have flooded to Signal as a tool for extreme privacy. It's not uncommon to have the setting set to wipe all messages after 24 hours.

In the sports world, Signal has become a place where business gets done.

NBA’s tampering enforcement spurs team officials to join Signal

At 5:52 p.m. ET on June 30, ESPN broke the story that Kevin Durant was signing with the Brooklyn Nets, eight minutes before free agency even opened. During a news conference at Las Vegas summer league, commissioner Adam Silver admitted there was no point in the league having tampering rules it couldn't enforce.

On Sept. 20, Silver announced stricter punishments for tampering rules and salary-cap circumvention. More importantly, the NBA widened the scale of its surveillance.

Signal bustles with NBA agents, and in recent weeks, more and more general managers and front-office executives began popping up on the app. As part of the NBA's enhanced enforcement, the league is permitted to randomly audit five teams this season. That includes relinquishing all electronic communication between employees, agents and players without cause. This will become a ponderous task for teams to gather all that information at the risk they could get audited.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver speaks at a news conference before an NBA preseason basketball game between the Houston Rockets and the Toronto Raptors on Oct. 8. (AP)
NBA commissioner Adam Silver speaks at a news conference before an NBA preseason basketball game between the Houston Rockets and the Toronto Raptors on Oct. 8. (AP)

Teams are in a wait-and-see period on how to view the NBA's enforcement rhetoric. Are the rule changes a sign the NBA is serious about enforcement? Or are league officials serious about looking like they're serious about enforcement? Even if it's the latter, there's a chance that a sacrificial lamb could help the NBA seize the optics.

"As there's more and more enforcement, more and more people who feel like they don't want to comply will use methods that enable them not to comply," a league source said. "That's not just a Signal thing. That's using anything someone can think of."

While Signal has emerged in NBA circles as a safe haven from outside eyes viewing communication, that's also under NBA scrutiny. The NBA is requiring front-office officials to retain all records of professional communication between players and agents for a year. The league office distributed a memo on Thursday reminding teams just that. A source with knowledge of the memo told Yahoo Sports the NBA also mandated a new rule: Team personnel may not use apps that auto-delete relevant communication.

Signal wasn't specifically mentioned. The app has an optional auto-deleting function that sets a disappearing timer anywhere from five seconds to one week on sent and received messages. According to the source, no impermissible apps were specifically mentioned. (A few years back, an NBA source noted that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban encouraged league executives to download an app called Cyber Dust, now known as Dust, to discuss trades and moves. Cuban endorsed Dust as part of his entrepreneurial empire.)

As long as they don't auto-delete messages, teams are permitted to use apps like Signal. That means an agent is free to badger a general manager about his client's playing time or update him on his health, just like they can on any other communication platform.

It's hard to say how the NBA can enforce such a distinction, however. The whole point of deleting messages on an app as secure as Signal is that nobody will know you deleted them. You can't audit something you don't know exists — or existed.

Fallout from NFL’s deflate-gate scandal: ‘Weaponized’ communications

Since 2018, Signal has become an increasingly popular app in the sprawling legal and agent ranks orbiting NFL teams, the league's union and thousands of players whose communications are subject to investigation. Unlike the intelligence community, it's not the military-grade end-to-end encryption that creates an attraction. Instead, it's the ability to consistently spike messages not only from the sender's phones, but the receiver's device as well. A feature which — barring screenshots and a comprehensive record of timestamps kept by the parties sending and receiving messages — can make it extremely difficult for retrieval during litigation.

Two NFL executives said they are unaware of an NFL mandate to retain information, similar to the one the NBA has. An NFL spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

One prominent example of prying eyes that has made Signal an easy sell to players in the NFL: The deflate-gate fiasco involving quarterback Tom Brady in 2015. In the midst of that league investigation, text messages and calls exchanged between Brady and New England Patriots employees became a pillar of suspicion in the NFL's probe. The league also accused Brady of allegedly obstructing the investigation by destroying a cell phone before it could undergo a forensic audit by investigators. Ultimately, the NFL ended up using parts of Brady's communications and his failure to turn over his phone to levy a four-game suspension.

In this June 17, 2015, file photo, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady calls out signals during an NFL football minicamp in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (AP)
In this June 17, 2015, file photo, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady calls out signals during an NFL football minicamp in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (AP)

The lesson learned by lawyers familiar with the proceeding? Multiple elements of communications — including actions with that data — can be weaponized against someone in the league's system of justice.

The resulting reaction was simple. Some lawyers and agents have spent the ensuing years looking at systems of communication outside of text messages that could be used to wipe out phone data on a consistent, or even scheduled, basis. Some advised clients to use apps that deleted digital messages or phone call logs every 24 hours.

The legal justification was succinct: If you want communications to stay consistently private — and you don't want to have to justify that privacy to an arbitrator or investigator down the road — you should be using something like Signal to wipe your messages on a consistent basis. If you do that, and NFL investigators come along asking why texts were deleted, the answer becomes defensible: "This is one form of communication I prefer and it automatically wipes my messages for privacy on a scheduled basis."

As one lawyer with multiple NFL clients framed it, "If an NFL investigator says, 'Turn over your phone for an audit,' and you've been using Signal, your privacy in that audit is strengthened when Signal has been wiping your messages with regularity. If it's your common practice to use Signal and the app has been erasing information every single day for a year, it's very hard for someone to argue that you're hiding something when the behavior of erasing information is not only consistent, but even done according to a schedule."

Applied to Brady in deflate-gate, if he and other Patriots employees had been using Signal for all of their communications, not only would those communications have been wiped clean, there would have been no available log showing when they communicated. Brady also could have handed over his phone to the NFL and then had a strong legal argument for why his Signal app had destroyed all of his messages — so long as the deletions had been part of a standard wiping schedule.

"It's a tool for privacy and that's what I tell players," the lawyer said. "The reasons for why you're seeking that privacy is your business. You could just say 'Someone could hack my phone or I could lose it or I don't trust people. I feel more secure about my phone when everything gets deleted once a day.' Now the burden is on the other side to prove that you're lying about that. If you've been consistently deleting things on a schedule, it's hard to prove that you're doing it for nefarious purposes."

Another lawyer with NFL clients said Signal has become a preferred conduit to leak documents to parties that shouldn't have them, or engage in communications that aren't supposed to be taking place. The app, he said, can be particularly useful in cases of litigation where wide swaths of messages can become subject to discovery — either by eliminating "searchable" texts in a phone audit, or simply being a form of communication that opposing lawyers aren't aware of during discovery.

"Some [discovery] requests, it's obvious the [other counsel] doesn't even know Signal exists," one lawyer said. "They'll ask for emails or SMS messages and other things, but never mention anything that would include something from Signal. In those situations, you just follow the discovery request as narrowly as it is presented and then go about your business like the Signal account doesn't exist."

More from Yahoo Sports: