Published — August 10, 2011 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

CFPB embraces social media but archiving Twitter, Facebook messages is challenge

President Barack Obama announces the nomination of former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray as the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Associated Press


The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is encouraging Americans to contact it through the agency’s Facebook page, YouTube channel and Flickr account. And on Twitter, the CFPB is already herding a conversation with consumers around its plan for a simple one-page mortgage summary, using the hashtag #KnowBeforeYouOwe.

But as the CFPB’s online strategy blazes new trails, it comes with significantly less sexy bureaucratic responsibilities such as how to protect and manage personal identifiable information that often accompanies consumers’ use of social media.

The agency recently launched the process to build a records system to manage all the information it gathers from its Twitter followers and Facebook friends. The CFPB Social Networks and Citizen Engagement System will store each consumer complaint or suggestion along with a consumer’s IP address, geographic location, birth date, business affiliation and other demographic information. The records may be disclosed, the CFPB said, if needed by Congressional offices, agency contractors, law enforcement authorities, or as part of court litigation.

A CFPB spokeswoman declined to comment.

“The use of social media will enable the [bureau] to interact with the public in effective and meaningful ways, encourage the wide sharing of consumer financial information and the strengthening of an online community of consumers, and ensure that critical information about the agency and key consumer finance issues is distributed,” the CFPB said in the recent Federal Register notice.

The bureau already has 6,763 followers on Twitter, 8,729 friends on Facebook and four videos on YouTube. Recent comments posted on the CFPB’s Facebook wall included a plea to stop Bank of America from charging a $6 fee to submit a monthly payment on the bank’s website before the due date, while another came from an escrow officer who suggested that the CFPB’s simplified mortgage summary form include a line for settlement services.

The CFPB push to establish a policy for its records comes on the heels of a 90-page Government Accountability Office report issued a few weeks ago on the difficulties other federal agencies face managing the archival and security concerns posed by social media platforms.As of April, 23 of 24 major federal departments and agencies surveyed by the GAO had accounts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — only the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did not use social media at the time of the review. But the GAO report concluded those agencies had “mixed progress in establishing appropriate policies and procedures for managing records,” and need more help from the National Archives and Records Administration, which issued general guidelines last October.

By law, federal agencies are required to adhere to a “records retention” schedule — rules that dictate how long they must hang on to emails, letters, memos and other documents generated in the course of doing business. The rules apply to the content of the record, not the medium, so if an agency is required to hold on to all complaints it receives, it must keep everything that arrives whether by Twitter or snail mail.

“Without clear policies and procedures for properly identifying and managing social media records,” the GAO warned, “potentially important records of government activity may not be appropriately preserved.”

Clear advice from the federal government would be appreciated by state and local records managers, too.

Julia Marks Young, president of the Council of State Archivists, said that records retention for the first generation of digital media has posed challenges. Her colleagues have their hands full with “the simple Word documents and e-mails,” she says, “so taking care of Tweets is down the list.”

Whatever solution is eventually reached for digital records retention, “it’s really important that it not be a commercial product, because those have proprietary restrictions,” Young said. “It needs to be an open source approach.”

There are simple preservation strategies for some web communications, like making PDFs out of Twitter comments. But a comprehensive Twitter crawl may be easier said than done. In April, Twitter announced it would give the Library of Congress a copy of every Tweet since the social medium’s inception in March 2006. The Library is still trying to figure out how it will go about preserving all those Tweets in a public, searchable way, according to a spokeswoman.

There are also some subscription services, like Archive-It that will periodically “crawl” a site and make a copy of its contents, though it’s not clear Archive-It can capture everything that needs to be caught, said Charles Robb, senior policy analyst for the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

Some cities worry that they may be vulnerable to future litigation if they fail to properly keep records created by exchanges on social media accounts.

Mike Webb, city attorney for Redondo Beach, Calif. pulled the plug on the city’s Facebook page last summer, in part over concerns that the posts and comments on the page posed problems with records retention.

“Does this fit within the public records definition? Yeah. Is anyone archiving it? Well, no,” he said. “With government cutting back at all levels, it’s just hard to add another responsibility.”

To solve the problem, the California state legislature could simply exempt Facebook messages from archival requirements, Web said, adding that the law lags behind “the pace of technology.”

The GAO report raised the same concern, noting that “social media technology can change quickly with functionality being added or changed that could have an impact on records management.” Furthermore, information housed on private sites, like Facebook, may pose “challenges in determining who has control over the information and how and when content should be captured for record-keeping,” it said.

The GAO urged many of the agencies and departments it surveyed to update their privacy policies to describe whether personally identifiable information is collected from social media contacts and used. The watchdog arm of Congress also encouraged the national archivist to continue working with federal agencies to identify best practices.

As for the CFPB, its recent notice in the Federal Register broadly outlining what it intends to do with its new records system is just the start. The agency’s records retention schedule — its own set of rules for what it will save and for how long – are not even due to be handed over to the National Archives to review for two more years.

Webb, the Redondo Beach city lawyer, said that while social media is good for democracy “we need to come up with policies that are constitutionally sound … (and) also ensure that we are using our taxpayers’ resources appropriately. That approach, he said, makes more sense rather than “not archiving it just waiting to see if someone sues.”

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