USAspending.gov: You Will be Watched

We recently added this new API listing to the US government site USAspending.gov 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 USASpending.gov 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 USASpending.gov customers is of utmost importance." It also says that no personally-identifying information is automatically collected when you visit USASpending.gov. 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 USASpending.gov is unfortunate, because it is wrong and it violates federal policy. USASpending.gov 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 Fedspending.org 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