It all started with a passing mention. On Friday, the New York Times published a feature story about what life was like in U.S. President Joe Biden’s White House. In the feature, the outlet noted that Biden had sent his grandchildren money using Venmo, which prompted an inquisitive “Oh?” from yours truly. I wasn’t the only one intrigued, though. That same day, folks at Buzzfeed News reportedly found the U.S. president’s Venmo account.
According to Buzzfeed’s fascinating account, which you can read in full here, it took less than 10 minutes to find Biden’s purported account on Venmo using the app’s search tool and public friends feature. The outlet also found what appeared to be accounts for almost a dozen members of the Biden family, including First Lady Jill Biden, as well as senior White House officials and their respective contacts on the app.
The incident set off alarm bells in the digital security community and put one of Venmo’s most criticised features, its public friend list, in the spotlight. Venmo, which is owned by PayPal, does not allow users to make their friend list private. In fact, Buzzfeed said that it was able to easily verify Biden’s account by looking at the people he was connected to, such as Jill Biden.
The U.S. president had less than 10 friends on the app, the outlet found. In comparison, the first lady’s account had a number of friends, including aides, Biden staffers, family members, and an account that appeared to belong to Hunter Biden, the president’s son. And while having a public friend list may not seem like a big deal to some, experts say it can enable stalking, harassment, spying, and deception.
After Buzzfeed reached out to the White House for its story, Biden’s connections on his public friend list were eliminated (the app allows you to remove friends by unfriending them manually). By the end of Friday, Buzzfeed reported that the accounts linked to the president and Jill Biden had disappeared.
The outlet did not reveal the usernames for the accounts believed to belong to Joe Biden, Jill Biden, the Biden family, and White House officials out of concerns over national security.
Gizmodo reached out to Venmo for a comment on the matter on Saturday. We asked Venmo whether it had specific security measures in place for high-profile individuals that use the app but did not receive a response.
“The safety and privacy of all Venmo users and their information is always a top priority, and we take this responsibility very seriously,” Venmo said in a statement. “Customers always have the ability to make their transactions private and determine their own privacy settings in the app. We’re consistently evolving and strengthening the privacy measures for all Venmo users to continue to provide a safe, secure place to send and spend money.”
This isn’t a new problem. Venmo has been receiving criticism over its public friend list for years. In 2018, the Wall Street Journal asked it why users couldn’t make their lists private.
“Because Venmo was designed for sharing experiences with your friends in today’s social world, we try to make it as easy as possible to connect with other Venmo users,” a spokeswoman said at that time.
Personally speaking, I pick safety over sharing experiences any day of the week. However, the bigger point here is one that we’ve been hearing a lot about lately: choice. Perhaps I don’t want to share my transactions or my friend list, but perhaps my neighbour does. We should be given the choice over whether to share — and be fully informed of the risks if we do — not be forced into doing so because Venmo was “designed” that way.
As far as Biden’s purported Venmo account goes, there’s no doubt that the U.S. president would rather not create a national security crisis when trying to send his grandchildren some spending money. While it’s clear the White House should have taken precautions and appropriate measures in this case, Venmo should have also made security a priority. It apparently didn’t.