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A 2-Track Society?

The recent flap over a White House email tip line ended this week when the feature was disabled. I won’t go into the details that drove the White House to this decision – they are captured quite well in this Washington Post article.  But the incident has led me to wonder: in the future, will the benefits you receive as a US citizen (or resident) increase depending on your willingness to surrender certain personal information about yourself to the government?

Perhaps the idea of a White House email tip line is a bit premature.  Governments are just starting to connect with citizens using technology.  Trust needs to be built.  Trust in your government (that your personal information will not be used in a way that violates your privacy). Trust in technology (that it will be secure and robust enough to protect your personal information from misappropriation).  Given the White House’s recent proposal to scale back the ban on tracking technologies on federal websites, I’m sure this question will be re-visted again.

But let’s assume the White House is successful in scaling back the tracking ban.  This would mean that citizens who “opt-in” to being tracked by a federal agency website – such as whitehouse.gov – will be asked to set up a personal profile (similar to what already happens when you shop online or have a website remember your customized settings and preferences). According to White House CIO Vivek Kundra, the federal government will then use this information to provide better, more targeted customer service.

Arguably, by knowing more about you, the government could serve your needs better.  Here are a couple examples. As a business owner, you could receive real time updates – from a pertinent federal agency – about the laws and regulations that impact your business. Most businesses do not have currently have access to this type of information (short of hiring a lawyer or other expert for advice).  Another example: under a technology pilot being spearheaded by US CTO Aneesh Chopra, the process to gain US citizenship or residency is being overhauled.  Now, after creating a profile, INS applicants will be able to get real time updates on the status of their US citizenship or residency application.  For anyone who has been through this process or knows someone who has, this will be a tremendous improvement to the normally onerous INS process.

All of this also means that people who choose to “opt-out” of the government’s tracking system will miss out on certain benefits (the magnitude of that loss would depend on personal and work situations).   This isn’t just a lack of information, it’s also a lack of engagement.  And over time, we will have two types of citizenry in our country – those that remain engaged and connected to government, and those who don’t.  There will be a cost – even if you don’t interact with a federal agency on a regular basis, you will still be deprived of valuable information – that may impact life and work decisions – if you opt out of this system.

Let’s circle back to where we started – the White House’s email tip line.  In the end, the situation has been resolved to some extent.  People who are in search of a response to “disinformation” about President Obama’s health insurance reform plan are being directed to the White House’s Reality Check website with specific questions being answered through a web-based form.  But this is a country where many layers of bureaucracy and protocol stand between the average citizen and the President.   Did “fear-mongering” and “online rumors” lead us to miss an opportunity to engage more deeply with the White House and enrich the national debate on a deeply important subject?

We’ll never know.  For now, at least with regards to health insurance reform, the White House wants your query to be completely anonymous.

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