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September 2nd, 2009
11:58 AM ET

Debunked: yet another "secret" White House plan to "harvest" your online activities

David Gewirtz | BIO
AC360° Contributor
Editor-in-Chief, ZATZ Publishing

President Roosevelt may have had to contend with Hitler and Stalin, not to mention an occasionally naked Churchill (look it up), but at least he didn't have to deal with the blogosphere.

President Obama has no such luck. He's the second President who not only has a fourth estate, but a completely unruly and often full-goose-bozo body of bloggers, just looking for any excuse to increase their "hits" and drive up the pennies they're given for their thoughts from Google's ad revenue service.

This time, trumpets the blogs, the White House has a "secret plan" to "harvest personal data from social networking sites."

First, it's not a plan, and, second, it's not exactly a secret.

It's a publicly available government procurement document, and just for you, I've read all 51 excruciatingly boring pages of the thing.

The White House isn't trying to get at your secrets. Instead, the White House is proactively attempting to comply with the Presidential Records Act (PRA) by interpreting postings to social networking sites - if posted by members of the Executive Office of the President - as possible Presidential records.

This is a good thing.

The document is asking vendors to propose how they'd record (for eventual delivery to the National Archives) all the postings the Executive Office of the President (EOP) makes (in the words of the RFP: "published by EOP") to to seven specifically named "whitehouse" accounts on seven social networking sites: Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, SlideShare, Flickr, YouTube, and Vimeo.

So far, so good. The document then goes on to request that the vendor propose how to record all comments made and messages sent to those "whitehouse" accounts. This, honestly, is a little dicey. It is relatively clear to those of us who are students of the PRA that outside comments by you and me aren't Presidential records.

In the old days, though, if you'd sent a real, paper, snail mail letter to the White House, you could reasonably expect it'd be examined by security personnel, and possibly filed - because one of the things all governments have done well since the time of the Romans is file stuff.

Today, we're far less likely to write something with a pen and stick a stamp (remember those?) on it. Instead, we're much more likely to @whitehouse a Twitter posting. Although most of the @whitehouse replies and comments are likely to be more noise than signal, some of them might generate a reply from the EOP account holders - and that dialog could be considered a Presidential record.

Seriously, this isn't a secret plan where the government archives and catalogs everything you publicly post, ever, on your favorite social networking site.

It's not like the White House is trying to be Big Brother. After all, that's Google's job.

Follow David on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/DavidGewirtz.

Author's Note: Let's get archived together. Post a "tweet" with both @DavidGewirtz and @whitehouse in the message. This way, you and I and the White House will be linked together in the National Archives for ever and ever. Isn't that romantic?

Editor’s note: David Gewirtz is Editor-in-Chief, ZATZ Magazines, including OutlookPower Magazine. He is a leading Presidential scholar specializing in White House email. He is a member of FBI InfraGard, the Cyberterrorism Advisor for the International Association for Counterterrorism & Security Professionals, a columnist for The Journal of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, and has been a guest commentator for the Nieman Watchdog of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. He is a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley extension, a recipient of the Sigma Xi Research Award in Engineering and was a candidate for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Letters.


Filed under: David Gewirtz • Technology
soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. fabian h. perez

    Quite interesting, but what are we talking about? Lets focus on how people is not focus... They (the governments) create, regulate, integrate etc, etc, the info. the resources and the activities they want us to perform. So lets turn our faces away and look to other horizon. Really when you acknowledge they don't really exist, that they live other reality in another world, then you start living... (even if you're forced to continue paying taxes HA! :) )

    September 2, 2009 at 3:26 pm |
  2. Hawekeye24

    This is completely harmless. Doesn't anyone remember Bush's actual SECRET wiretapping program-interecepting domestic emails, phone calls, etc. Or because he's not pres we can just forget all about his tramplings on the Constitution. That IS truly scary.

    September 2, 2009 at 2:53 pm |
  3. JC-Los Angeles

    It's hilarious to hear anyone suggest that President Obama has to deal with the blogosphere and the challenges that come with it.

    President Obama and his campaign team did a fantastic job leveraging technology, marketing and innovation to create a brand that the American voters bought.

    Now that buyers remorse has set in, it's beyond the pale to blame technology and innovation for the product not meeting certain standards.

    September 2, 2009 at 2:06 pm |
  4. fox6117

    If it's not a "secret" program why is the White House forcing all potential vendors to sign a non-disclosure form with the threat of jail time if they or any of their employees speak a word of what they are archiving?

    And if this is just "archiving" why is the WH requesting that the vendor make the database of archived material searchable, user friendly, and with the ability for staffers to highlight specific posts with tags that say, "OVP or healthcare"?

    And on top of that if this is strictly for NARA, why is the WH requesting the vendor to keep an offsite copy of all of these records, accessible by up to ten different accounts the WH has requested?

    September 2, 2009 at 12:50 pm |