The Wall Street Journal had an opinion piece earlier this week with the tantalizing title “Metadata Liberation Movement” that reflects some of my thinking on network analysis. The column asks an important question: “With respect to the […] metadata surveillance, why is it conducted by a secret agency at all?” If this kind of analysis works then we should use it for a lot more than fighting terrorism. Possible use cases include fighting crime more generally, human trafficking and organized crime in particular, detection of disease outbreaks and other public health applications.
But there is an important caveat here which I think is essential to making any type of organized data collection on all citizens compatible with democracy: we need to include all of government with a higher level of transparency than ordinary citizens. I had tweeted the following a while back:
Idea for #PRISM: include congress, WH, all exec departments and K Street phone and email metadata, then add citizen query API
The more I think about it that is exactly the level of transparency we should be aiming for. There could be a time delay on how soon after the fact the information can be queried but all of it should eventually be publicly available (there might also be some limit on the “resolution” of the information — e.g., individual for elected officials, departments otherwise).
The idea of holding government to a higher level of disclosure is of course not novel. For instance, we require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns. Thus: if government is operating network analysis on the citizens then the reverse also has to be true (and to a higher degree).
Our elected officials and other parts of government are likely to fight this idea tooth and nail. But as citizens we should absolutely insist on it. That’s what will allow us to return to a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”