This week, President Obama is in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly to meet with partners and address a range of issues with the international community, including open government.
At the U.N. General Assembly last year, President Obama called on nations to make, "specific commitments to promote transparency, to fight corruption, to energize civic engagement, and to leverage new technologies so we can strengthen the foundations of freedom in our own countries." Today, the President outlined the progress that has already been made in response to his call to action:
And now we see governments around the world meeting this challenge, including many represented here today. Countries from Mexico to Turkey to Liberia have passed laws guaranteeing citizens the right to information. From Chile to Kenya to the Philippines, civil society groups are giving citizens new tools to report corruption. From Tanzania to Indonesia -- and as I saw firsthand during my visit to India -- rural villages are organizing and making their voices heard, and getting the public services that they need. Governments from Brazil to South Africa are putting more information online, helping people hold public officials accountable for how they spend taxpayer dollars.
Here in the United States, we’ve worked to make government more open and responsive than ever before. We’ve been promoting greater disclosure of government information, empowering citizens with new ways to participate in their democracy. We are releasing more data in usable forms on health and safety and the environment, because information is power, and helping people make informed decisions and entrepreneurs turn data into new products, they create new jobs. We’re also soliciting the best ideas from our people in how to make government work better. And around the world, we’re standing up for freedom to access information, including a free and open Internet.
"A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives."
James Madison, Letter to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822
"...[T]he concentration of power and the subjection of individuals will increase amongst democratic nations... in the same proportion as their ignorance."
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 2, 1840
In a democracy, the principle of accountability holds that government officials—whether elected or appointed by those who have been elected—are responsible to the citizenry for their decisions and actions.
Transparency requires that the decisions and actions of those in government are open to public scrutiny and that the public has a right to access such information. Both concepts are central to the very idea of democratic governance. Without accountability and transparency, democracy is impossible. In their absence, elections and the notion of the will of the people have no meaning, and government has the potential to become arbitrary and self-serving.
The People's Right to Know
Elections are the primary means for citizens to hold their country's officials accountable for their actions in office, especially when they have behaved illegally, corruptly, or ineptly while carrying out the work of the government. But for elections—and the people's will—to be meaningful, basic rights must be protected and affirmed, such as with a Bill of Rights, as in the United States. James Madison, the author of the U.S. Bill of Rights, believed that the very basis for government's responsiveness was the assurance that citizens would have sufficient knowledge to direct it. If citizens are to govern their own affairs, either directly or through representative government, they must be informed about how best to determine their affairs and how best to represent and execute them. If citizens are not well informed, they can neither act in their own self-interest, broadly speaking, nor have any serious choice in elections, much less offer themselves as candidates.
The Information Awareness Office (IAO) was established by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in January 2002 to bring together several DARPA projects focused on applying surveillance and information technology to track and monitor terrorists and other asymmetric threats to national security, by achieving Total Information Awareness (TIA). This would be achieved by creating enormous computer databases to gather and store the personal information of everyone in the United States, including personal e-mails, social networks, credit card records, phone calls, medical records, and numerous other sources, without any requirement for a search warrant. This information would then be analyzed to look for suspicious activities, connections between individuals, and "threats". Additionally, the program included funding for biometric surveillance technologies that could identify and track individuals using surveillance cameras, and other methods.
Following public criticism that the development and deployment of these technologies could potentially lead to a mass surveillance system, the IAO was defunded by Congress in 2003. However, several IAO projects continued to be funded, and merely run under different names.
Many U.S. government agencies such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Security Agency (NSA), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are investing heavily in research involving social network analysis. The intelligence community believes that the biggest threat to U.S. power comes from decentralized, leaderless, geographically dispersed groups of terrorists, subversives, extremists, and dissidents. These types of threats are most easily countered by finding important nodes in the network, and removing them. To do this requires a detailed map of the network.
Jason Ethier of Northeastern University, in his study of modern social network analysis, said the following of the Scalable Social Network Analysis Program developed by the Information Awareness Office:
AT&T developed a programming language called "Hancock", which is able to sift through enormous databases of phone call and Internet traffic records, such as the NSA call database, and extract "communities of interest" -- groups of people who call each other regularly, or groups that regularly visit certain sites on the Internet. AT&T originally built the system to develop "marketing leads", but the FBI has regularly requested such information from phone companies such as AT&T without a warrant, and after using the data stores all information received in its own databases, regardless of whether or not the information was ever useful in an investigation.The purpose of the SSNA algorithms program is to extend techniques of social network analysis to assist with distinguishing potential terrorist cells from legitimate groups of people.... In order to be successful SSNA will require information on the social interactions of the majority of people around the globe. Since the Defense Department cannot easily distinguish between peaceful citizens and terrorists, it will be necessary for them to gather data on innocent civilians as well as on potential terrorists.—Jason Ethier
Some people believe that the use of social networking sites is a form of "participatory surveillance", where users of these sites are essentially performing surveillance on themselves, putting detailed personal information on public websites where it can be viewed by corporations and governments. About 20% of employers have reported using social networking sites to collect personal data on prospective or current employees.