You Will be Watched

We recently added this new API listing to the US government site which provides API access to budget data, but we didn't notice a detail which one of our readers did: that there's a somewhat intimidating, red-text warning on the homepage that says:

WARNING: This is a United States Federal Government computer system that is "FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY." This system is subject to monitoring. Therefore, no expectation of privacy is to be assumed. Individuals found performing unauthorized activities are subject to disciplinary action including criminal prosecution. Click here for more information.

In his blog post Coby Logen points to a variety of potential issues and inconsistencies in the site:

  • "For Official Use Only" — This means the information is sensitive, but unclassified. If this is true, then contains information that should not be released to the public.
  • No expectation of privacy — This is in direct conflict with the website's privacy policy, which opens: "the privacy of customers is of utmost importance." It also says that no personally-identifying information is automatically collected when you visit The warning and the privacy policy cannot both be correct.
  • Unauthorized activities — What exactly would be unauthorized? If the information on the site really is "For official use only", then it is unauthorized for a private citizen to even access the information.

And later on notes that:

Although there are other ways to get federal budget information, the warning on is unfortunate, because it is wrong and it violates federal policy. does not meet the definition of "For Official Use Only"; it contains public information. There is an expectation of privacy; no personally-identifying information is collected from visitors. The warning conflicts with OMB Memoranda, which require each government site to "post clear privacy policies" and adhere to them, because the warning significantly obscures and confuses the site's privacy policy.

Coby's post points out a variety of good alternatives including the Sunlight Foundation who provide the same data via the API as well resources on our Government API Dashboard.

In the meantime, you've been warned.

Be sure to read the next Government article: Mashups in Learning-Focused Organizations


Comments (7)

[...] to allow the government to access any email or web search taking place. Then today Programmable Web published a piece about’s inherent lack of privacy within their [...]

The physical computer system is for official use only, not the data.

Oh come on...this site is clearly available to the public. However, the legal small print says that since

" is designed to provide transparency in federal spending. The site is not designed to support FTP or other methods of bulk access to its data repositories. Use of automated data gathering tools or other programs that attempt to gather information from data sources is prohibited; when detected, the user will be blocked from access to the site."

@Ubu and Spook, true that there's not likely any issue in access and use of the data. Yet it's one of the more unusual warnings around such a service we've seen. Confusing at best.

<i>What exactly would be unauthorized?</i>

That would be "anything that makes the responsible bureaucrats or incumbent politicians look bad".

The V.A. has given to my social security Number without my permission what the hell can I do about this,they sent me a letter apolagizing for the mistake,I feel that I've been raped and vandilized.