Smart Government and Big, Open Data: The Trickle-Up Effect

Anthony Townsend at the Future Now Blog: “As we grow numb to the daily headlines decrying the unimaginable scope of data being collected from Internet companies by the National Security Agency’s Prism program, its worth remembering that governments themselves also produce mountains of data too. Tabulations of the most recent U.S. census, conducted in 2010, involved billions of data points and trillions of calculations. Not surprisingly, it is probably safe to assume that the federal government is also the world’s largest spender on database software—its tab with just one company, market-leader Oracle, passed $700 million in 2012 alone. Government data isn’t just big in scope. It is deep in history—governments have been accumulating data for centuries. In 2006, the genealogical research site imported 600 terabytes of data (about what Facebook collects in a single day!) from the first fifteen U.S. censuses (1790 to 1930).

But the vast majority of data collected by governments never sees the light of day. It sits squirreled away on servers, and is only rarely cross-referenced in ways that private sector companies do all the time to gain insights into what’s actually going on across the country, and emerging problems and opportunities. Yet as governments all around the world have realized, if shared safely with due precautions to protect individual privacy, in the hand of citizens all of this data could be a national civic monument of tremendous economic and social value.”

International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance

Final version, 10 July 2013:  “As technologies that facilitate State surveillance of communications advance, States are failing to ensure that laws and regulations related to communications surveillance adhere to international human rights and adequately protect the rights to privacy and freedom of expression. This document attempts to explain how international human rights law applies in the current digital environment, particularly in light of the increase in and changes to communications surveillance technologies and techniques. These principles can provide civil society groups, industry, States and others with a framework to evaluate whether current or proposed surveillance laws and practices are consistent with human rights.
These principles are the outcome of a global consultation with civil society groups, industry and international experts in communications surveillance law, policy and technology.”

New Book: Untangling the Web

By Aleks Krotoski: “The World Wide Web is the most revolutionary innovation of our time. In the last decade, it has utterly transformed our lives. But what real effects is it having on our social world? What does it mean to be a modern family when dinner table conversations take place over smartphones? What happens to privacy when we readily share our personal lives with friends and corporations? Are our Facebook updates and Twitterings inspiring revolution or are they just a symptom of our global narcissism? What counts as celebrity, when everyone can have a following or be a paparazzo? And what happens to relationships when love, sex and hate can be mediated by a computer? Social psychologist Aleks Krotoski has spent a decade untangling the effects of the Web on how we work, live and play. In this groundbreaking book, she uncovers how much humanity has – and hasn’t – changed because of our increasingly co-dependent relationship with the computer. In Untangling the Web, she tells the story of how the network became woven in our lives, and what it means to be alive in the age of the Internet.” Blog:

The Internet generation will learn to let go

Julian B. Gewirtz and Adam B. Kern in The Washington Post: “Ours is the first generation to have grown up with the Internet. The first generation that got suspended from school because of a photo of underage drinking posted online. The first generation that could talk in chat rooms to anyone, anywhere, without our parents knowing. The first generation that has been “tracked” and “followed” and “shared” since childhood.
All this data will remain available forever — both to the big players (tech companies, governments) and to our friends, our sort-of friends and the rest of civil society. This fact is not really new, but our generation will confront the latter on a scale beyond that experienced by previous generations…
Certainly there will be many uses for information, such as health data, that will wind up governed by law. But so many other uses cannot be predicted or legislated, and laws themselves have to be informed by values. It is therefore critical that people establish, with their actions and expectations, cultural norms that prevent their digital selves from imprisoning their real selves.
We see three possible paths: One, people become increasingly restrained about what they share and do online. Two, people become increasingly restrained about what they do, period. Three, we learn to care less about what people did when they were younger, less mature or otherwise different.
The first outcome seems unproductive. There is no longer much of an Internet without sharing, and one of the great benefits of the Internet has been its ability to nurture relationships and connections that previously had been impossible. Withdrawal is unacceptable. Fear of the digital future should not drive us apart.
The second option seems more deeply unsettling. Childhood, adolescence, college — the whole process of growing up — is, as thinkers from John Locke to Dr. Spock have written, a necessarily experimental time. Everyone makes at least one mistake, and we’d like to think that process continues into adulthood. Creativity should not be overwhelmed by the fear of what people might one day find unpalatable.
This leaves the third outcome: the idea that we must learn to care less about what people did when they were younger or otherwise different. In an area where regulations, privacy policies and treaties may take decades to catch up to reality, our generation needs to take the lead in negotiating a “cultural treaty” endorsing a new value, related to privacy, that secures our ability to have a past captured in data that is not held to be the last word but seen in light of our having grown up in a way that no one ever has before.
Growing up, that is, on the record.”

Taking Games for Good to a New Level

Idit Harel Caperton (@idit) in SSIR: “Last month’s Games for Change Festival (G4C) celebrated the promising power of video games to yield social change. The event, now in its tenth year, brings game developers, educators, NGOs, and government agencies to New York City to discuss and promote the creation of social-issue games in an industry with a global market of $67 billion, projected to reach $82 billion by 2017. Big numbers like this prove that the gaming industry has engaged the masses, and G4C wants to push this engagement toward social learning and positive action.
It’s already happening on a small scale. The Games for Change Awards, announced annually at the festival, recognizes effective mission-driven games. This year’s winning games included “Data Dealer,” which raises awareness around personal data and online privacy, and “Quandary,” where players are social pioneers facing decisions that challenge their moral compass. These and other games endorsed at G4C achieve a blend of social influence and technical innovation through engaging gameplay.
G4C has also aligned with larger social impact movements, proving that video games can be vehicles for positive global action through game mechanics. Half the Sky Movement is a transmedia campaign working against the oppression of women worldwide; it includes a book, film, and game. The game, produced by G4C and available for free on Facebook, features game tasks that transfer to real-world donations and social action opportunities. Since launching in March, “Half the Sky Movement: The Game” has raised nearly $350,000 to empower women worldwide. Yet, social issue games production still resides on the edge of the gaming industry. …”

Metadata Liberation Movement

Holman Jenkins in the Wall Street Journal: “The biggest problem, then, with metadata surveillance may simply be that the wrong agencies are in charge of it. One particular reason why this matters is that the potential of metadata surveillance might actually be quite large but is being squandered by secret agencies whose narrow interest is only looking for terrorists….
“Big data” is only as good as the algorithms used to find out things worth finding out. The efficacy and refinement of big-data techniques are advanced by repetition, by giving more chances to find something worth knowing. Bringing metadata out of its black box wouldn’t only be a way to improve public trust in what government is doing. It would be a way to get more real value for society out of techniques that are being squandered on a fairly minor threat.
Bringing metadata out of the black box would open up new worlds of possibility—from anticipating traffic jams to locating missing persons after a disaster. It would also create an opportunity to make big data more consistent with the constitutional prohibition of unwarranted search and seizure. In the first instance, with the computer withholding identifying details of the individuals involved, any red flag could be examined by a law-enforcement officer to see, based on accumulated experience, whether the indication is of interest.
If so, a warrant could be obtained to expose the identities involved. If not, the record could immediately be expunged. All this could take place in a reasonably aboveboard, legal fashion, open to inspection in court when and if charges are brought or—this would be a good idea—a court is informed of investigations that led to no action.
Our guess is that big data techniques would pop up way too many false positives at first, and only considerable learning and practice would allow such techniques to become a useful tool. At the same time, bringing metadata surveillance out of the shadows would help the Googles, Verizons and Facebooks defend themselves from a wholly unwarranted suspicion that user privacy is somehow better protected by French or British or (heavens) Chinese companies from their own governments than U.S. data is from the U.S. government.
Most of all, it would allow these techniques to be put to work on solving problems that are actual problems for most Americans, which terrorism isn’t.”

Predictive Policing: Don’t even think about it

The Economist: “PredPol is one of a range of tools using better data, more finely crunched, to predict crime. They seem to promise better law-enforcement. But they also bring worries about privacy, and of justice systems run by machines not people.
Criminal offences, like infectious disease, form patterns in time and space. A burglary in a placid neighbourhood represents a heightened risk to surrounding properties; the threat shrinks swiftly if no further offences take place. These patterns have spawned a handful of predictive products which seem to offer real insight. During a four-month trial in Kent, 8.5% of all street crime occurred within PredPol’s pink boxes, with plenty more next door to them; predictions from police analysts scored only 5%. An earlier trial in Los Angeles saw the machine score 6% compared with human analysts’ 3%.
Intelligent policing can convert these modest gains into significant reductions in crime…
Predicting and forestalling crime does not solve its root causes. Positioning police in hotspots discourages opportunistic wrongdoing, but may encourage other criminals to move to less likely areas. And while data-crunching may make it easier to identify high-risk offenders—about half of American states use some form of statistical analysis to decide when to parole prisoners—there is little that it can do to change their motivation.
Misuse and overuse of data can amplify biases…But mathematical models might make policing more equitable by curbing prejudice.”

How algorithms rule the world

in The Guardian: “From dating websites and City trading floors, through to online retailing and internet searches (Google’s search algorithm is now a more closely guarded commercial secret than the recipe for Coca-Cola), algorithms are increasingly determining our collective futures. “Bank approvals, store cards, job matches and more all run on similar principles,” says Ball. “The algorithm is the god from the machine powering them all, for good or ill.”…The idea that the world’s financial markets – and, hence, the wellbeing of our pensions, shareholdings, savings etc – are now largely determined by algorithmic vagaries is unsettling enough for some. But, as the NSA revelations exposed, the bigger questions surrounding algorithms centre on governance and privacy. How are they being used to access and interpret “our” data? And by whom?”

It’s Time to Rewrite the Internet to Give Us Better Privacy, and Security

Larry Lessig in The Daily Beast: “Almost 15 years ago, as I was just finishing a book about the relationship between the Net (we called it “cyberspace” then) and civil liberties, a few ideas seemed so obvious as to be banal: First, life would move to the Net. Second, the Net would change as it did so. Gone would be simple privacy, the relatively anonymous default infrastructure for unmonitored communication; in its place would be a perpetually monitored, perfectly traceable system supporting both commerce and the government. That, at least, was the future that then seemed most likely, as business raced to make commerce possible and government scrambled to protect us (or our kids) from pornographers, and then pirates, and now terrorists.

But another future was also possible, and this was my third, and only important point: Recognizing these obvious trends, we just might get smart about how code (my shorthand for the technology of the Internet) regulates us, and just possibly might begin thinking smartly about how we could embed in that code the protections that the Constitution guarantees us. Because—and here was the punchline, the single slogan that all 724 people who read that book remember—code is law. And if code is law, then we need to be as smart about how code regulates us as we are about how the law does so….
But what astonishes me is that today, more than a decade into the 21st century, the world has remained mostly oblivious to these obvious points about the relationship between law and code….
the fact is that there is technology that could be deployed that would give many the confidence that none of us now have. “Trust us” does not compute. But trust and verify, with high-quality encryption, could. And there are companies, such as Palantir, developing technologies that could give us, and more importantly, reviewing courts, a very high level of confidence that data collected or surveilled was not collected or used in an improper way. Think of it as a massive audit log, recording how and who used what data for what purpose. We could code the Net in a string of obvious ways to give us even better privacy, while also enabling better security.