Website turns tables on government officials
By Hiawatha Bray, Globe Staff, 7/4/2003
Annoyed by the prospect of a massive new federal surveillance system, two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are celebrating the Fourth of July with a new Internet service that will let citizens create dossiers on government officials.
The system will start by offering standard background information on politicians, but then go one bold step further, by asking Internet users to submit their own intelligence reports on government officials -- reports that will be published with no effort to verify their accuracy.
"It's sort of a citizen's intelligence agency," said Chris Csikszentmihalyi, assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab.
He and graduate student Ryan McKinley created the Government Information Awareness (GIA) project as a response to the US government's Total Information Awareness program (TIA).
Revealed last year, TIA seeks to track possible terrorist activity by analyzing vast amounts of information stored in government and private databases, such as credit card data. The system would use this information to analyze the actions of millions of people, in an effort to spot patterns that could indicate a terrorist threat.
News of the plan outraged civil libertarians and prompted Congress to set limits on the scope of such activity. The Defense Department then renamed the program Terrorist Information Awareness, to ease public concern.
But the controversy gave McKinley the idea for the GIA project. "If total information exists," he said, "really the same effort should be spent to make the same information at the leadership level at least as transparent -- in my opinion, more transparent."
McKinley worked with Csikszentmihalyi to design the GIA system. It's partly based on technology used to create Internet indexes such as Google. Software crawls around Internet sites that store large amounts of information about politicians. These include independent political sites like opensecrets.org, as well as sites run by government agencies. McKinley created software that ferrets out the useful data from these sites, and loads it into the GIA database. The result is a one-stop research site for basic information on key officials.
The site also takes advantage of round-the-clock political coverage provided by cable TV's C-Span networks. McKinley and Csikszentmihalyi use video cameras to capture images of people appearing on C-Span, which generally includes the names of people shown on screen. A computer program "reads" each name, and links it to any information about that person stored in the database. By clicking on the picture, a GIA user instantly gets a complete rundown on all available data about that person.
The GIA site constantly displays snapshots of the people appearing on C-Span at that moment. If there's a dossier on a particular person, clicking on the picture brings it up. A C-Span viewer watching a live government hearing could learn which companies have contributed to a member of Congress's reelection campaign, before the politician had even finished speaking.
All of the information currently on the site is available from public sources. But GIA will go one step further. Starting today, the site will allow the public to submit information about government officials, and this information will be made available to anyone visiting the site. No effort will be made to verify the accuracy of the data.
This approach to Internet publishing isn't new. It resembles a method known as Wiki, in which a website is constantly amended by visitors who contribute new information. The best known Wiki site, www.wikipedia.org,
is an online encyclopedia created entirely by visitors who have voluntarily written nearly 140,000 articles, on subjects ranging from astronomy to Roman mythology. Any Wikipedia user who thinks he has spotted an error or wants to add information can modify the article. Unlike at a standard encyclopedia operation, there is no central authority to edit or reject articles.
The GIA approach, though, raises the possibility that people could post libelous information, or data that unreasonably compromises a person's privacy.
That troubles Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology & Liberty Program of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We think that there should be some restrictions on the publishing of personally identifiable information, whether it involves government officials or not," he said.
But he noted that the public has a right to know some things about a politician that would be properly kept private about an ordinary citizen. For instance, voters have a right to know where a politician sends his children to school, if that politician has taken a strong stand on school vouchers.
"Do they have the right to publish every piece of data they're going to publish?" Steinhardt asked. "It's going to depend on what they publish."
In any case, Steinhardt said, McKinley and Csikszentmihalyi have a First Amendment right to set up the GIA project. And he said that it's a valuable response to the government's TIA surveillance. "I assume the point of this is, turnabout is fair play."
On a page of the GIA website, at opengov.media.mit.edu, McKinley and Csikszentmihalyi give their answer to questions about the legitimacy of their actions.
"Is it legal?" the site reads. "It should be."
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com