How President Obama’s inaugural app mines data for Democrats

Originally published January 16, 2013

Looking for a public toilet using the new Inauguration smartphone app? That might just land you on left-leaning email lists or solicited in coming years to be a Democratic campaign donor.

Thousands have downloaded the free program since its release Monday by the official Presidential Inaugural Committee, but few are likely to notice that the terms-of-service andprivacy statement — aka the fine print — give the committee permission to share their data “with candidates, organizations, groups or causes that we believe have similar political viewpoints, principles or objectives.”

Users at various places in the app and on the PIC’s website are asked for their mobile phone numbers, email and home addresses, as well as permission to locate devices by GPS. Not all of that is required to use some of the functions of the app.

The legalistic language also gives the PIC use of any activity, postings or comments made via the app or the website “without limitation in advertising, fundraising and other communications in support of PIC and the principles of the Democratic party, without any right of compensation or attribution.”

It’s a strikingly partisan side of the efforts from a group that is specifically referenced on the website of the U.S. Office of Governmental Ethics as “not a political organization.” The four honorary chairmen of the PIC, in fact, are America’s four living ex-presidents, two of whom are Republicans.

“It seems like classic bait-and-switch,” said Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit focused on fostering openness and transparency in government. “This is a committee that’s formed to throw a celebration for an event that should be nonpartisan. Theoretically, the whole country should be involved. It’s a patriotic, banners-and-bunting and parades kind of day. And oh, by the way, if you use this app, we may be harvesting your emails and sharing it with our friends in the Democratic Party.”

PIC spokeswoman Addie Whisenant defended the group’s data-mining efforts.

“Every four years, the Presidential Inaugural Committee is formed based on the principles of the incoming president and is responsible for putting on official inauguration events for all Americans to celebrate the election of a president,” she said late Tuesday in an emailed statement. “Regardless of party, it is appropriate for a president’s Inaugural Committee to support and reflect their party’s ideals and causes. In bipartisan cooperation and to honor their service to the country, the PIC has traditionally asked former presidents to serve as honorary co-chairs on the Inaugural Committee.”

But Greg Jenkins, chairman of the 2005 Presidential Inaugural Committee that oversaw the second inaugural of President George W. Bush, said they didn’t think of building contact lists for future campaigns when they put on that year’s events.

“It’s not that anybody says to operate from a non-partisan point of view, but it’s thought of as an all-for-one, Kumbaya effort,” Jenkins said. “You don’t try to make it look Republican or Democratic. You wrap yourself around the presidency, not the president.”

The PIC is a private nonprofit created every four years and usually managed by alumni of the winning presidential campaigns. Thus, it’s no surprise to find President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina and Messina’s deputy Stephanie Cutter among prominent figures listed as overseeing key elements of the weekend’s festivities.

The PIC also relies on rent-free office space from the General Services Administration and is, thus, a beneficiary of public resources.

The app is a new undertaking for PIC. Much of the privacy policy and terms of service are routine — the sort of claims to rights that most commercial apps and sites stake out in exchange for access. One section, for instance, begins by claiming that it isn’t their policy “to share the personal information we collect from you,” but then the document lists a litany of exceptions that leaves almost nothing off-limits.

That’s usually enough to alarm privacy advocates, but the fact that the PIC has presented this app for broad public use while hiding its partisan objectives in the fine print is troublesome to David Jacobs, consumer protection counsel of the Electronic Information Privacy Center. Few who download this app looking to watch the Inauguration on a live-stream or trying to strategize where to stand for the parade expect that in doing so they’re making a political statement, he said.

“This app has features that are problematic in other apps, but those problems are heightened because you can imagine people feeling more protective about their political information,” Jacobs said. “That’s something else that’s also at play here.”

The PIC oversees the inaugural parade and balls, as well as Saturday’s National Day of Service. Americans of all backgrounds are being exhorted by Obama to volunteer either in Washington, D.C. or across the nation, and the app and website are key resources for what volunteering opportunities are available. The sign-up function on the site asks for street and email addresses and requires visitors to create a username and password.

As recently as 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday evening, the PIC sent an email signed by the president urging participation and saying Saturday was “a day to put politics aside.” The email contained links to the PIC site where the terms of service indicate personal data can be harvested for Democratic causes.

In that way, the data gathering seems to the Sunlight Foundation’s Kiely and others like an extension of a hallmark of the Obama campaign, which became famous for its use of technology to build a supporter list by Obama for America. That acumen is partly credited with the margin of his victory over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in November.

Obama for America has not disclosed what it plans to do with the information collected now that the president himself won’t be running for any future offices. but some campaign functionaries have suggested converting it to a permanent political nonprofit. The Inauguration is a key opportunity to collect names and donations because the PIC does not have to report to the Federal Election Commission how it spends its money or deploys its resources.

Thus, Kiely said, it is possible for the PIC to give donations — which are limitless under the law — to the next incarnation of Obama for America without any public disclosure.

“Everything about this inaugural seems to raise the prospect that this is being used as a political platform,” said Kiely, a former national political reporter for USA Today and managing editor of National Journal. “Are they creating a conduit here to harvest money and data — whatever they need for this new political committee? The fact that they’re being secretive about it makes my news antenna twitch.”

Whisenant insisted donations to the PIC “are not used to fund any political campaigns or parties. In compliance with the laws governing contributions to an Inaugural Committee, we will report all donor information 90 days after the event.”

That may be, but the fate of the information gathered remains a mystery.

“It’s literally saying a non-partisan school group who goes to the Inauguration to see their president sworn in could appear in an ad for the Democratic National Committee,” said Vince Harris, online campaign chief for Ted Cruz, Newt Gingrich, Linda McMahon and Allen West in the past year. “It’s totally nuts.”