“Information you choose to share with the White House (directly and via third party sites) may be treated as public information,” the new policy says.
The Obama administration also promises not to sell the data of online visitors. But it cannot make the same assurances for users who go to third-party White House sites on Facebook, Twitter or Google Plus.
There will be no significant changes in actual practices under the new policy. But legal jargon and bureaucratic language has been stripped out, making it easier for readers to now understand that the White House stores the date, time and duration of online visits; the originating Internet Protocol address; how much data users transmit from WhiteHouse.gov to their computers; and more. The administration also tracks whether emails from the White House are opened, forwarded or printed.
After coming to office in a campaign lauded for its online savvy, President Barack Obama’s White House has quickly adapted to online engagement since taking office in 2008, embracing using the Internet in all of its manifestations. The first administration with an Office of Digital Strategy, Obama’s online strategy now includes a We the People petitions platform, live online chats and more than a dozen social media sites including Google Plus, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Vine, MySpace and seven different Facebook pages including La Casa Blanca and Education to Innovate.
Visitors who link to those social media sites are advised: “Your activity on those sites is governed by the third-party website’s security and privacy policies,” which frequently allow those companies to sell users’ data. In addition, the White House archives Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus content to comply with the Presidential Records Act.
The policy says Obama will keep some information – automatically generated email data, Mobile App use data and some cookie data – until the end of the current administration. The White House is also explicit about what it doesn’t do, including collecting geolocation information from mobile-app users or sharing information for commercial purposes.
The policy is being released at a time when the administration is facing unprecedented criticism over disclosures from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden that expose sweeping U.S. government surveillance programs. The policy aims to address at least some of those concerns.
White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said they also do not give third parties, including the political organization Obama for America or the U.S. National Security Agency, access to their email database or other systems.
“Within the White House, we restrict access to personally identifiable information to employees, contractors, and vendors subject to non-disclosure requirements who require access to this information in order to perform their official duties and exercise controls to limit what data they can view based on the specific needs of their position,” the policy says.
For example, if someone gives the White House a telephone number or email address, staffers might respond to the message or petition, providing information or even services if appropriate. They might also take messages, comments, Twitter replies and Facebook comments to use for public advocacy, like promoting Obama’s health care overhaul.
If a user asks the White House a question that is really about homeland security, the user’s information may be shared with that agency. And if someone is trying to report a federal crime, or threatening someone, that person’s information may be passed on to law enforcement.
Lehrich said that when people share comments or sign online petitions through the We the People platform, it’s with the understanding that it is public information.
Reviews from privacy experts – who have been watching the privacy-policy revisions closely – were mixed.
The biggest problem, said Jeramie Scott, national security counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., is not what happens when users are on WhiteHouse.gov, but when they click onto the White House’s third-party social media sites that don’t abide by Obama’s own privacy rules and may sell personal data they glean from users.
“Interacting with the White House and its different sites is inherently political, and that type of thing shouldn’t be used for commercial gain,” Scott said.
Mark Jaycox, a legislative analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, said the new policy underscores the administration’s ongoing interest in collecting data. “You see it across the board. You saw it in the campaign. You see it in the White House petitions. This is just one more step toward amassing more information,” he said.
Jaycox said the new policy is not explicit enough about what the White House does with information it gathers. “The onerous thing is we don’t know what they’re doing on the back end with all of this data,” he said.
But several privacy experts praised the new policy as more explicit and understandable.
“It’s a nice gesture by the White House,” said Federation of American Scientists secrecy expert Steven Aftergood in Washington. “I think the move reflects a heightened public awareness of privacy concerns, which is commendable.”
Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project director John Simpson said that in terms of pure disclosure, “this seems to be one of the better policies, a model perhaps for others.”