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Will PRISM Impact Open Data Efforts?

News of widespread online spying by the National Security Agency has some open data proponents concerned about their image.

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.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.