The Privacy Implications of “Friending” the White House (Part II)
Since I last wrote about President Obama’s Facebook friends, Government 2.0 has steadily progressed. Since early May, our Commander-in-Chief has added more than 150,000 new friends. The FDA has initiated its Transparency Blog and will soon add a Twitter feed and Facebook page. More state agriculture agencies reach the public through social networking sites. Of course, the government social-networking phenomenon is not brand new: since 2007, the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has maintained a virtual island in Second Life and the CDC has had a MySpace page. Nonetheless, it is a particularly auspicious time to think about this trend’s privacy implications especially in light of the GSA’s recent agreement with video-sharing and social networking sites to permit agencies to use their services.
What are the public’s privacy expectations when using government social media? It is surely too early to identify a clear sense of our expectations, at least in any well-studied way. But the Obama Administration has provided some sense of what we should expect when we join a future Facebook group sponsored by OMB or engage in virtual conversations with agency officials in Second Life. How so? The current push for agencies to use Web 2.0 platforms stems from President Obama’s January 21, 2009 Open Government memorandum. The memorandum urges executive departments and agencies to be more transparent, participatory, and collaborative. Agencies “should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.” They should “offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information.” And they should use “innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate” and collaborate with the public and private sectors in making policy. USA.gov’s Sheila Campbell has explained that agencies will appoint directors of new media to determine how they can use social networking tools to meet mission goals and comply with President Obama’s Open Government directive. As White House CIO Vivek Kundra has noted, public comment on programs will hopefully be a “two-way interaction between government and its citizens.” White House spokesperson Moira Mack clarified the point: “we are focused on opening government to the people (and not the other way around), and like with any other online friends, the individual users can still choose to keep information private using their privacy settings.”
So what does all of this signal about our privacy when interacting with government agencies via Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, You Tube, etc.? The Open Government directive tells us that government wants to shine light on its activities and get our opinions and expertise on policy matters. It says nothing about government’s interest in our personal lives, i.e., what we write on our friends’ walls, the 25 things you don’t know about us, our network of friends, etc. Our personal lives seem downright out of place in any discussion of the Open Government directive. This seems to create a presumption of openness as to policy-related matters and a presumption of privacy as to individuals’ personal matters.
In other words, the Government has created a one-way mirror: the public can peer into agency workings, data, and policymaking but the agency behind the mirror cannot glance back into our personal lives. And why would we even think that President Obama, the CDC, or NASA has the time or policy-driven motive to see the movies we love, the albums we bought, or the amount of money we spent at a bar? As a commentator on eParticipation noted: “While the UK Home Office is planning to gain access to social networking sites to snoop on its citizens, the Obama administration seeks to use the same technology to engage with voters and find out what they want.” Agencies’ recent forays into Facebook environment reflect this intuition. Agencies have created Facebook “fan pages” that allow Facebook users to join, receive updates (transparency), and conduct discussions on the wall or in forums (participatory/collaborative). Agencies, however, cannot peer inside the lives of their fans: it is a one-way mirror of sorts.
Tomorrow I will discuss the normative implications of the one-way mirror and would love your feedback on my intuitions.
H/T to the ever-insightful Paul Ohm who shared with me his insights on the one-way mirror.