Wednesday, September 02, 2009

File under "What if Bush did it?"

Twitter user clobrien tweeted this item this morning, pointing to a White House "Secret Plan to Harvest Personal Data from Social Networking Sites". The only quibble I have with her tweet is that the plan is not very secret.

Her tweet links to an article at National Legal and Policy Center which describes a request for contract proposals (PDF of the RFQ) from the White House New Media Office for contractors to submit bids to "ensure that content published by the Executive Office of the President (EOP) on publicly-accessible web sites is archived in accordance with the Presidential Records Act (PRA)".

OK fine, you say. The White House wants to make sure that whatever they publish on sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter gets properly archived. But that's not all, folks. From the RFQ:
The contractor shall provide the necessary services to capture, store, extract to approved formats, and transfer content published by EOP on publicly-accessible web sites, along with information posted by non-EOP persons [That'd be me and you! --ed.] on publicly-accessible web sites where the EOP offices under PRA maintains a presence, throughout the term of the contract.
The term of the contract, not coincidentally, is eight years (base year plus seven renewals).

NLPC nails the big problem with this at the close:
Perhaps anticipating negative reaction to the invasiveness of the plan, a justification is provided in a Q&A. section of the solicitation. Question #9 reads:

The Presidential Records Act does not require the storage or archiving of non-EOP content, as such is there a specific reason as to why the content provided on EOP related websites in the form of comments is included in these archiving procedures?

Answer: The PRA includes in its definition of presidential records content ―received by PRA components and personnel. Out of an abundance of caution, we are treating comments made by non-PRA personnel on sites on which a PRA component has a presence as presidential records, requiring them to be captured or sampled.

Of course, this interpretation of the Presidential Records Act is so expansive that virtually any communication mentioning the president or the Administration could become subject to collection and archiving under the Act. This is not out of an “abundance of caution,” but out of an over-abundance of power. President Obama should make sure that this plan goes no further.
There's that overly-broad definition problem again. NLPC correctly points out that under the definitions in the RFQ, nearly any mention of the administration by non-EOP users can be considered appropriate content to harvest.

Oh, and by the way...White House staffers are already doing this, they just need a more efficient tool. From the RFQ:
Currently, the Government team is capturing the data and content both programmatically (via Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) from social networks) and manually (through daily screen shots).
I'm sure the ACLU will be all over this any minute. Yessiree, any minute now.

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