Venmo accounts for Joe Biden and Dr Jill Biden were removed on Friday after BuzzFeed News said it easily found the US president on the payment app – a discovery it said raised national security questions.
The website went looking for Biden’s account after it was mentioned in a New York Times report on White House conditions and working practices.
Under the headline “Beneath Joe Biden’s Folksy Demeanor, a Short Fuse and an Obsession With Details”, the Times reported lengthy policy debates, angry outbursts at advisers and officials – and plenty of time spent with grandchildren.
“They have been known to show their grandfather apps like TikTok,” the story said. “One adviser said he had sent the grandchildren money using Venmo.”
The Trump administration wrestled unsuccessfully with the popularity of TikTok, an app for sharing short videos, over its ownership by a Chinese company, ByteDance.
Venmo, which is owned by PayPal, enables simple payments between contacts. Transactions are public by default. They can be made private but contact lists remain visible. Biden’s payments were private. BuzzFeed did not publish names of his contacts.
Reporters commonly scan Venmo for leads. The scandal engulfing the Republican congressman Matt Gaetz, for example, has included reporting on payments to women, allegedly for sex, made by a former associate.
One recent Daily Beast headline read: “Gaetz Paid Accused Sex Trafficker, Who Then Venmo’d Teen”. Gaetz denies all such accusations.
BuzzFeed said it took “less than 10 minutes” to find Biden’s account, “using only a combination of the app’s built-in search tool and public friends feature”.
“In the process,” it said, it “found nearly a dozen Biden family members and mapped out a social web that encompasses not only the first family but a wide network of people around them, including the president’s children, grandchildren, senior White House officials and all of their contacts on Venmo.”
The White House did not immediately comment. By late Friday, BuzzFeed said, accounts for the president and first lady had been removed.
A Venmo spokesman said: “The safety and privacy of all Venmo users and their information is always a top priority, and we take this responsibility very seriously.
“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.”
In a 2018 Guardian report, Christine Bannan, then of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said: “Venmo is an unusual app because it combines social media with financial transactions.
“One of those is usually fairly public and one is usually very private, so it’s hard to gauge consumer expectations of privacy.”
Gennie Gebhart, acting activism director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told BuzzFeed: “Venmo’s privacy failures are already a big problem for everyday folks who use Venmo, and that’s been the case for years.
“All of those problems are magnified when we’re talking about a major public figure.”