We are happy that our August 31 report on the White House New Media operation to harvest data from social network websites is finally getting some attention. We unearthed the fact that this office is seeking a vendor capable of conducting a massive data harvesting operation, prompting concerns that the White House is seeking to identify friends and enemies.
When we posted our story, we received so many hits that it took down our server and forced us to move to a more powerful machine, but we received scant print and electronic media coverage. Today, the Washington Times covered the story on its front page, above the fold. Drudge and Lucianne linked to the story, giving it high visibility.
As explained by the Times:
The White House is collecting and storing comments and videos placed on its social-networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube without notifying or asking the consent of the site users, a failure that appears to run counter to President Obama’s promise of a transparent government and his pledge to protect privacy on the Internet.
As noted in the article:
The National Legal and Policy Center, a government ethics watchdog, said archiving the sites would have a “chilling effect” on Web site users who might wish to leave comments critical of the administration.
Our concerns are even more broadly based.
Our August 31 story was based on a document called a “Request for Quote” (RFQ) that we discovered while we were looking for something else. It is a solicitation for a private-sector vendor to bid on a project for the White House New Media office. Its stated purpose — to comply with the Presidential Records Act — did not seem to comport with what was specified in the document. Click here to download 51-page pdf of RFQ.
Our first concern is with the scope of whatever White House plan underlies the RFQ. On page three under “Performance Objectives,” the vendor is asked to:
(K) Provide a web-based tool for government employees to administer and manage this record keeping. (i.e. add new publicly accessible websites to the crawl or adjust the crawl frequency.) Provide a minimum of 10 simultaneous login accounts.
In other words, the administration wants to the ability to have at least 10 government workers simultaneously adding new web sites to a crawl program, or adjusting the crawl frequency on web sites being crawled. This would allow a massive data mining operation.
The RFQ contains no dollar figure. It doesn’t even specify a range or cap. It calls for a one-year contract, but with seven possible one-year extensions.
Our second concern is secrecy. The RFQ contains extremely broad secrecy terms preventing the vendor from disclosing to the public or the media what information is being captured and archived (page 7, “Restriction Against Disclosure.”)
Third is the context. We worry what the White House is actually up to, in light of two controversies last month involving the New Media office. It asked Obama supporters to send it “fishy” emails, prompting fears the White House was compiling an enemies list.
It also sent a David Axelrod-signed spam email on health care received by people who never opted in to any White House list. The White House has yet to fully explain how it compiled the email lists.
The New Media office is headed by Macon Phillips, who ran the Obama campaign’s internet operation, which collected 13 million email addresses. He has hired a staff of operatives with significant internet and campaign experience. These are not archivists or librarians. They have been hired for a purpose.
If the White House wants to run an aggressive internet campaign in support of Obama’s policies, it should be run out of the Democratic National Committee with privately-raised funds. It is inappropriate for such an operation to be run out of the White House, funded by the taxpayer.
But even that will not solve the privacy issue. If anyone, inside the White House or not, seeks to proactively compile information on millions of Americans who post information on social networking sites, they should abandon those plans now.
Flaherty Warns of White House Plan to Mine Social Network Data (video: CNN/Lou Dobbs)