Sunday, February 8, 2009

More on Balancing Transparency and Privacy

Ive already received criticism for the idea of validating the identity of individuals that want to download and repurpose government data as reported by the New York Times. As a result of these criticisms, I thought it would be useful if I provided a more in depth explanation of my recommendations.

First, I'm more interested in credentialing those individuals or organizations that want to repurpose data and less concerned about those that simply want to view data. In the interest of preserving transparency I think individuals or organizations should be able to freely view government data, but I think privacy is eroded when individuals or organizations are able to copy and repurpose government data without any accountability.

In the case of eightmaps, I think the State of California was correct to publish the information on those individuals and organizations that contributed to the passage of Prop 8. Citizens have a right to know who donated to political candidates and ballot initiatives. Without this right there would be no transparency and it would be too easy for the political process to be corrupted. However, I think that the State of California was incorrect in its decision to post the Prop 8 donors online in an excel spreadsheet that anyone could download and reuse in any manner they see fit. In effect, the State allowed anyone to access and repurpose that data with no oversight.

The key here is developing a process that balances the sometimes competing goals of transparency and privacy. Both goals are essential for a healthy democracy and I think what were are currently witnessing, as demonstrated by the eightmaps example, is how the increased accessibility of personal information has disrupted the delicate balance between transparency and privacy. It is true that this data was always available to those individuals willing to spend the time to travel to local courthouse. However, the advent of the Internet has now made this same data increasingly accessible to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. The Internet, in this case, has disrupted the balance and increased transparency at the expense of privacy.

I therefore think that governments should create a process by which individuals or organizations have to be credentialed in some way before they are able to copy and reuse government data. Specifically, I think the government should validate and track the names and contact information of individuals or organizations that download government data. Ideally, this credentialing system would force a more responsible use of personal information or at least make the creator of websites like eightmaps more accountable for their use of the data.


Jeffrey said...

I agree, Ned. Unfortunately I suspect that the important distinction you make between making information available versus making it easy to repurpose will be lost those folks who aren't tech-savvy enough to understand the process of accessing data.

Kevin said...

Should the creator of the mash-up really be responsible? It seems to me that the worry from is that a user (third-party) would misuse the easily-presented information. Wouldn't sacrificing the privacy of the coder/hacker behind by holding him "accountable" for the actions of his users put a chilling effect on grass roots government 2.0?

Ned Moran said...


Thanks for the feedback. My suggestion was aimed at limiting more egregious abuses of government data. In the case of eightmaps the creator hasnt done anything nefarious in his or her manipulation of the data. Therefore I doubt forcing him or her to provide his or her identity would have prevented the creation of eightmaps.

Jason said...

Response to the weekly reading:
Depending on your point of view, I think that James Bamford's book would make you feel disturbed or comforted. Personally, I felt a little comforted by the fact that the government was using as many resources as possible to stop criminal activities. The scope of the technology available to the government was surprising when I actually read the numbers provided in the book. It also made me think that the private sector was probably the best way for this service to be provided since the lure of money obviously prompted the innovations that have been an economic boon for companies like Booz Allen and the cities they work in. When the book claims that companies like Verint and Narus have wiretapped virtually the entire American telecom system, it doesn't make me feel vulnerable, but makes me feel that the government actually has the capability to prevent terrorist attacks. Bamford does provide some examples of corruption and greed that has plagued the industry. The book chronicles how various agencies or persons circumvented laws by carrying on with surveillance activities. Despite these examples, I don't think Bamford presents a compelling enough argument to discontinue such practices.