Social media raises federal record-keeping, privacy concerns

Web 2.0 tools are important for agency missions but require additional guidance, officials say.

Social media tools enable the government to engage with citizens and carry out their missions, but federal officials are pushing for additional guidance to ensure records are preserved properly.

Officials from several agencies told the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and National Archives on Thursday that the growing use of Web 2.0 technologies across government presents challenges for official record-keeping. Communications via blogs, wikis and social networks in many cases are considered federal records and must be managed as such, they said.

According to a Government Accountability Office report released at the hearing, 22 of 24 major federal agencies have a presence on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. But policies outlining what information must be preserved and how have yet to be established, the report found.

New technology requires government to rethink its definition of a record, said David Ferriero, U.S. archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration. NARA later this year will release updated guidance to agencies on how Web 2.0 platforms affect records management, he said, adding the new policies also will include results of a study on how these tools aid mission-related functions.

Republican subcommittee members moved to subpoena testimony from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on the use of personal e-mail for official business. Andrew McLaughlin, the Obama administration's deputy chief technology officer for Internet policy and a former Google lobbyist, in April was found to have used his Gmail account to communicate with Google executives and administration officials in violation of laws governing the management and capture of official communication. Beth Simone Noveck, White House deputy chief technology officer for open government, was supposed to appear at a hearing earlier this summer but did not participate on Thursday.

"This is a disturbing trend in the administration, the extraordinary lengths officials are going to, to avoid having their conversations captured by federal records laws," said subcommittee ranking member Patrick McHenry, R-N.C.

According to Ferriero, federal employees are free to use their personal accounts as long as those documents can be saved in agencies' record-keeping systems.

Lawmakers also expressed concern about the privacy and security capabilities of Web 2.0 technology. According to GAO, agencies have limited control over the information third-party providers such as Facebook collect and also lack consistent guidance for how such data can be used in a government setting. Employees using these tools need additional rules and training, the report found.

But Dave McClure, associate administrator for the General Services Administration's Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, stressed the value of using commercial social networking tools for official work. Most of the products on the market are easy to use and available at little or no cost, he told lawmakers at the hearing, minimizing the need for agencies to develop those platforms themselves. Most are not compliant with federal privacy and security policies, but they must be configured to meet those standards before they can be purchased and used, he added.

"We shouldn't lose perspective on the benefits government gets from social media," he said.

NEXT STORY: Real Social Networking?