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Will PRISM Impact Open Data Efforts?

Online privacy depicted by a human eye surrounded by binary code


June 13, 2013 By

In recent years, many state and local governments have put effort into open data projects that would inspire developers to create apps and find ways to use public data to bring value to their communities. So news of PRISM, the National Security Agency’s (NSA) online spying tool leaked by former CIA employee Edward Snowden, angered a lot of people and began a debate about the role of open data.

Most people don’t like being spied on, but today the extent of PRISM’s capabilities is cloudy. Some reports say PRISM, which costs $20 million annually to operate, creates a copy of absolutely everything online. Not everyone agrees that this is the case, as it would require cooperation from companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL and Apple, whose officials have come forward denying cooperation. But others point out that the same law that may require those companies to cooperate with the NSA may prohibit them from coming clean about their involvement.

Further confusion is added to the mix by the fact that $20 million is probably nowhere near the amount of funding needed to create a carbon copy of the Internet each year. According to a 2012 infographic created by business intelligence software firm DOMO, every 60 seconds, YouTube users upload 48 hours of video, 571 new websites are created, 3,125 Flickr photos are shared, 100,000 tweets are tweeted, and more than 204 million emails are sent. Multiply those figures by 525,600 (the number of minutes in a non-leap year) and that’s a lot of data to sift through.

The federal government doesn’t seem too excited about PRISM becoming public knowledge, but maintains that it’s being used to search for terrorists and spy on other countries, but these explanations leave a lot of questions unanswered. Concerns about constitutional violations persist despite the government's careful phrasing and assurances that PRISM has not been used to spy on citizens willy-nilly, as many reports are suggesting. In fact, the Patriot Act provides that the federal government doesn’t need to disclose the extent of its rights where spying is concerned, let alone the extent of the spying that is actually occurring or how long it has been happening.

To summarize, it’s known that PRISM is an Internet spying device, but who is being spied on, which organizations are involved and how it all works is largely a matter of conjecture at this point.

Some state and local government leaders are just hoping that this news doesn’t sour people on the idea of open data and the positive things it can do. Philadelphia Chief Data Officer Mark Headd pointed out that despite the controversy, PRISM shows how powerful data analytics tools are today. “We’ve never lived in a richer environment for that kind of thing,” Headd said. The same dynamic that made PRISM possible, he said, is the same dynamic that has allowed open data to flourish, but that’s where the similarities stop.

The idea that open data and spying are two sides of the same coin, an argument Headd has heard since the PRISM news broke, is ridiculous, he said. “The open data initiative has its foundation in transparency,” he said. The whole point of open data is to make government more transparent and more accountable, while PRISM wasn’t meant to become public at all. The intentions behind NSA spying and a city looking for a way to turn water usage data into an app aren’t similar.

In Philadelphia, Headd said, they’re working with other major cities across the country to explore ways of sharing open data to gain efficiencies and learn more about how their communities function. It’s not about getting data that people value as private and sharing it, he said, it’s about using daily data that people are sharing anyway, and using that to help everyone.

“It’s a vast landscape of data that’s going on right now,” Headd said. “The news we’re hearing out of Washington about this program I think runs the risk of overshadowing a lot of the good work we’re doing to actually open government up and make it more transparent. And that’s really the key for us at the local level.”

Michael Powell, chief innovation officer of Maryland, agreed that there’s a big distinction between the type of data the NSA seems to be collecting and the type of data that states like his collect for open data programs.

In May, Maryland announced the launch of its open data Web portal. “The kind of data we have that we really like are things like sewer overflows from over 10 or 15 years of recording that data. That’s important to environmentalists. We have vehicle collisions that the state police respond to. We’ve got vendor payments. None of this stuff is personally identifiable,” he said. “I mean, it’s pretty benign.”

In fact, Powell said, people probably know what information their state government has about them because they gave it to the state themselves. Sensitive and personally identifiable information like tax records, revenue records and health records are kept private and the state considers it an important responsibility to keep those things private, he said.

“We have safeguards in place to make sure that’s not the kind of stuff we’re sharing. That’s our big concern,” he said. “We’d like our efforts in open data to be successful and the thing that would stop it in its tracks is if we shared stuff we shouldn’t share. We take it as a big responsibility of ours to first of all not share, but also to put security measures in place so it doesn’t get in the wrong hands.”

Open data is about making data that is supposed to be public anyway easier to access, Powell said. “Almost exclusively, when we talk about open data and the data the state of Maryland is making available, people want more of it, not less.”

Image from Shutterstock.


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Comments

BOB EVERETT    |    Commented June 14, 2013

For the folks who have their panties in a wad over PRISM. You can't have it both ways. Personally, I have little or no concern over what PRISM does. My attitude regarding surveillance by local authorities is similar. If you're not doing something WRONG!, what's to worry about. There is so much data mining going on already that it is virtually uncontrollable. At least there is some oversight in re: PRISM.

Star    |    Commented June 14, 2013

Oh--the old if you aren't doing anything wrong argument. I wonder if people wrongly imprisoned felt that trust before years of trying to be exonerated and released. Apparently, this huge data grab is efficient because they have new ways of finding things in it--such as your name and address...Just because some general says he knows no way of doing it does not mean a young, technically savvy kid can't or won't. And what is that oversight, Bob? Haven't heard too much about it.

Steve Schennum    |    Commented June 14, 2013

This attitude regarding surveillance is exactly what allows tyranny to grow and thrive. Consider the irony in this quotation: "You have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide." - Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda If the government is doing nothing wrong, then it should have nothing to worry about regarding Snowden's leaked documents.

Deb    |    Commented June 18, 2013

There is a lot of spin doctoring going on in this article. "People know what data they cive the state" - yes. We have no choice. We never said you can share that data with big business so that you can both profit from our data (and we get nothing). "The whole point of open data is to make government more transparent" - No. Its point is to get more of our data into the hands of business to use to profit from us and to track us. As for why this is bad - we are about to relive history, since we learned nothing from it. The McCarthy trails will be a child's game compared to what the crazies in Washington will do with this new spy system of theirs. Every word you say can and will be held against you, and they have every word on file.

J Connor    |    Commented June 18, 2013

“Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” ― Benjamin Franklin


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