Privacy – the Open Government Party Crasher

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The NSA leaks crashed the global open government party. Don’t get me wrong – I do not think this undermines the “whole idea of open government” as someone recently claimed to me. But the open government community cannot sit on the sidelines. It forces us to think hard about two related issues that we have avoided talking about up until now.

These are:

(1) The privacy implications of open government: I feel the community has  underemphasized privacy concerns. For example, I can’t think of any open government event I’ve been to that has put a serious spotlight on the issue. Now, thanks to Snowden, we can no longer avoid it.

This applies to the privacy implications of open data, where we’ve seen the beginnings of an interesting debate just recently. See the work of the Web Foundation’s Open Data Research Network and the Open Knowledge Foundation which – rightly – suggest we should develop a set of privacy principles for open data.

This also applies to the broader open government movement. For example, campaigners pushing for greater transparency around financial flows (e.g. revenues from extractive industries, budget expenditures, tax transparency) might benefit from explaining how these data/information releases will adequately take account of privacy concerns where relevant. A privacy ‘check list’ might help to sharpen discussions about what information should be disclosed and how? (Incidentally, such a check list could also help funders when assessing grant applications.)

There is a tension here: we need to bring people together, work it over and see where we can join forces. This is another great opportunity to bust silos and join up the movement.

(2) The transparency of government surveillance efforts: for a long time, a small group of committed transparency advocates have been agitating on the issue. Back in 2011 (pre Snowden), the Opening Government publication included a section on ‘national security transparency and accountability’, the Center for Democracy and Technology and other groups (esp. in the US) have long campaigned on the issue. But the issue is not part of the mainstream open government community. It should be.

Here is an opportunity for the open government community to reach out to the groups that have developed expertise in the area (e.g. Privacy International), share what they have learned and see how we might work together. Open government groups and civil liberties campaigners sit on the same side of the fence in this case: this could be a powerful alliance. Groups campaigning for the transparency of government surveillance efforts are part of the global transparency movement. We should embrace that.

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