Obama's mixed signals on transparency

In the past few days, the public has received some seriously mixed signals relating to Barack Obama's commitment to transparency.

Chris Soghoian
Christopher Soghoian delves into the areas of security, privacy, technology policy and cyber-law. He is a student fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society , and is a PhD candidate at Indiana University's School of Informatics. His academic work and contact information can be found by visiting www.dubfire.net/chris/.
Chris Soghoian
4 min read

How far does President-elect Barack Obama take his commitment to transparency? Is it a serious pledge to shake up Washington, to apply sunlight to the often shadowy depths of the executive branch, or is it merely a very good marketing campaign?

In the past few days, the public has received some seriously mixed signals on the issue--his decision to use YouTube to speak to the American people, and then press reports indicating that he may give up e-mail as president to avoid oversight.

On Saturday morning, Obama's first video address to the people was posted to YouTube. A copy of the video was embedded into the Change.gov blog, and has since received over 650,000 views. In describing the new YouTube effort, an Obama spokesperson told The Washington Post that:

"This is just one of many ways that he will communicate directly with the American people and make the White House and the political process more transparent."

Contrast that bit of hype to the news that the president-elect will likely be giving up his prized Blackberry, and like previous presidents, giving up e-mail the moment he takes office, due to the fact that e-mails can be subpoenaed by Congress, or later end up in the presidential library. As The New York Times reported:

In addition to concerns about e-mail security, [Obama] faces the Presidential Records Act, which puts his correspondence in the official record and ultimately up for public review, and the threat of subpoenas. A decision has not been made on whether he could become the first e-mailing president, but aides said that seemed doubtful.

The real issue here is not one of keeping the president's in-box safe from Chinese hackers, but keeping it safe from Congressional investigators.

If the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, and a number of other spy agencies can provide e-mail access to their tens of thousands of employees, then the president's e-mail can be kept safe and secure. The U.S. government has classified networks, over which classified data flows, and for obvious reasons, these are not connected to the general purpose Internet. And for the spy on the go who needs real-time access to top secret information? The NSA has its own smartphones made for handling classified data.

It is important to note that no one from the Obama administration has gone on record to speak about this issue yet, and so while it is certainly worth discussing, it is still too early to pass judgment upon President-elect Obama's e-mail policy.

In the meantime, the press has reached out to members of past administrations to share their thoughts on the clash between Obama's stated commitment to transparency and a natural desire for privacy. On this issue, former Bush Press Secretary Scott McClellan told the Associated Press:

"While he has pledged an open and transparent government, I doubt the president-elect is interested in subjecting his own personal communications to that standard." He added, "He will have to think very hard about whether he wants to make his own words that subject to open records by having his own e-mail and his own BlackBerry."

If the next president opts to use e-mail, it will almost certainly become part of the public record at some point. However, that lack of e-mail privacy is far more a feature than a bug.

Without being able to follow the paper trails, and see what is being said by whom in the White House, how can real oversight be achieved? The willingness of the next president to use e-mail (and even a smartphone), even with the knowledge that his messages might later be subpoenaed by Congress, will be the best way for him to demonstrate his belief in the importance of sunlight.

As for the issue of Obama's right to privacy--remember that we are not talking about the president's personal Hotmail account, but his ability to use e-mail for work purposes. Americans generally have little to no legal rights to privacy relating to their use of Internet at work--at least with regard to their employer. Bosses have the right to install Web filters, monitoring software, and to read through specific e-mails.

With that in mind, consider that Obama is a public servant who works for us. We, the public, are his collective boss, and so why should he have any privacy rights over the e-mails he sends on our time? If the White House is the People's House, then its e-mail servers are the People's Servers, and we have a right to see every bit of text that gets sent through them at our expense.

Finally, if the president is serious about transparent government, perhaps he'll pledge to not allow his staff to hide behind executive privilege once Congressional investigators come calling (as I am sure they eventually will). Sure, this will be more unpleasant and potentially embarrassing than merely throwing a few carefully scripted videos up on YouTube. However, such a commitment would actually be transparency we can believe in.