White House secretly collected data from Americans responding to 'online privacy' survey

In an episode of political irony, the Obama White House recently asked for the public’s input on internet privacy and the collection of private data online, while at the same time secretly collecting data from those participating in the survey.

On Friday, March 21, the White House sent out an email to its subscriber list asking readers to participate in an online survey about what it called “big data and privacy.” In an apparent attempt to respond to criticism over the Obama administration’s monitoring of private citizen emails, internet usage, and other communications, the White House asked for input on the issue.

The email promotes President’s Obama efforts to address online privacy, and asks for feedback on the issue. “In January, President Obama spoke about changes in the technology we use for national security purposes and what they mean for our privacy broadly,” the email said. “He launched a 90-day review of big data and privacy: how they affect the way we live, and the way we work - and how data is being used by universities, the private sector, and the government…But this is a conversation that affects all Americans, and we want to make sure you have a chance to be a part of it. We want your input.”

The email provides a link to a survey posted at the official White House website, which includes five questions on the issue. It asks participants to rate how much they trust certain institutions with their private data, including commercial business, government agencies, law enforcement agencies, and intelligence agencies. It asks how concerned participants are in the collection of private data, including telecommunications and online data. It also asks for a level of concern over certain data collection and storage practices. It also provides two questions allowing for participants to write out any other concerns they have.

At the bottom of the survey, just above the “SUBMIT” button, is a small link to the White House privacy policy. Clicking on the link reveals that your participation in a survey about online privacy and data collection allows the White House to collect data and other information about you.

According to the privacy policy, taking the survey gives the White House the authority to compile the following information about the participant:
  • Record the computer’s IP address.
  • Record the domain name the participant uses to access the internet (from a school website, search engine, or business website, for example).
  • Record the link from other websites used to access WhiteHouse.gov.
  • Record information about the computer, including the web browser used, the computer’s operating system, screen resolution, and connection speed.
Even though the policy states “The White House does not use this information to identify or track the browsing of individual users,” recent events have shown that the government regularly spies on private citizens for any reason and without oversight or a warrant. The policy does state “we may share the information with other federal agencies in response to lawful law enforcement requests or to protect WhiteHouse.gov from security threats,” which could be used as a loophole to identify or track individual users for any reason.

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