What Should We Do About Big Data Leaks?

Paul Ford at the New Republic: “I have a great fondness for government data, and the government has a great fondness for making more of it. Federal elections financial data, for example, with every contribution identified, connected to a name and address. Or the results of the census. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of downloading census data but it’s pretty exciting. You can hold America on your hard drive! Meditate on the miracles of zip codes, the way the country is held together and addressable by arbitrary sets of digits.

You can download whole books, in PDF format, about the foreign policy of the Reagan Administration as it related to Russia. Negotiations over which door the Soviet ambassador would use to enter a building. Gigabytes and gigabytes of pure joy for the ephemeralist. The government is the greatest creator of ephemera ever.

Consider the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, or FCIC, created in 2009 to figure out exactly how the global economic pooch was screwed. The FCIC has made so much data, and has done an admirable job (caveats noted below) of arranging it. So much stuff. There are reams of treasure on a single FCIC web site, hosted at Stanford Law School: Hundreds of MP3 files, for example, with interviews with Jamie Dimonof JPMorgan Chase and Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs. I am desperate to find  time to write some code that automatically extracts random audio snippets from each and puts them on top of a slow ambient drone with plenty of reverb, so that I can relax to the dulcet tones of the financial industry explaining away its failings. (There’s a Paul Krugman interview that I assume is more critical.)

The recordings are just the beginning. They’ve released so many documents, and with the documents, a finding aid that you can download in handy PDF format, which will tell you where to, well, find things, pointing to thousands of documents. That aid alone is 1,439 pages.

Look, it is excellent that this exists, in public, on the web. But it also presents a very contemporary problem: What is transparency in the age of massive database drops? The data is available, but locked in MP3s and PDFs and other documents; it’s not searchable in the way a web page is searchable, not easy to comment on or share.

Consider the WikiLeaks release of State Department cables. They were exhausting, there were so many of them, they were in all caps. Or the trove of data Edward Snowden gathered on aUSB drive, or Chelsea Manning on CD. And the Ashley Madison leak, spread across database files and logs of credit card receipts. The massive and sprawling Sony leak, complete with whole email inboxes. And with the just-released Panama Papers, we see two exciting new developments: First, the consortium of media organizations that managed the leak actually came together and collectively, well, branded the papers, down to a hashtag (#panamapapers), informational website, etc. Second, the size of the leak itself—2.5 terabytes!—become a talking point, even though that exact description of what was contained within those terabytes was harder to understand. This, said the consortia of journalists that notably did not include The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc., is the big one. Stay tuned. And we are. But the fact remains: These artifacts are not accessible to any but the most assiduous amateur conspiracist; they’re the domain of professionals with the time and money to deal with them. Who else could be bothered?

If you watched the movie Spotlight, you saw journalists at work, pawing through reams of documents, going through, essentially, phone books. I am an inveterate downloader of such things. I love what they represent. And I’m also comfortable with many-gigabyte corpora spread across web sites. I know how to fetch data, how to consolidate it, and how to search it. I share this skill set with many data journalists, and these capacities have, in some ways, become the sole province of the media. Organs of journalism are among the only remaining cultural institutions that can fund investigations of this size and tease the data apart, identifying linkages and thus constructing informational webs that can, with great effort, be turned into narratives, yielding something like what we call “a story” or “the truth.” 

Spotlight was set around 2001, and it features a lot of people looking at things on paper. The problem has changed greatly since then: The data is everywhere. The media has been forced into a new cultural role, that of the arbiter of the giant and semi-legal database. ProPublica, a nonprofit that does a great deal of data gathering and data journalism and then shares its findings with other media outlets, is one example; it funded a project called DocumentCloud with other media organizations that simplifies the process of searching through giant piles of PDFs (e.g., court records, or the results of Freedom of Information Act requests).

At some level the sheer boredom and drudgery of managing these large data leaks make them immune to casual interest; even the Ashley Madison leak, which I downloaded, was basically an opaque pile of data and really quite boring unless you had some motive to poke around.

If this is the age of the citizen journalist, or at least the citizen opinion columnist, it’s also the age of the data journalist, with the news media acting as product managers of data leaks, making the information usable, browsable, attractive. There is an uneasy partnership between leakers and the media, just as there is an uneasy partnership between the press and the government, which would like some credit for its efforts, thank you very much, and wouldn’t mind if you gave it some points for transparency while you’re at it.

Pause for a second. There’s a glut of data, but most of it comes to us in ugly formats. What would happen if the things released in the interest of transparency were released in actual transparent formats?…(More)”