Thursday, January 15, 2009

The problem with partial transparency

Kevin Drum posted an interesting piece about the somewhat creepy public mapping of California Prop. 8 donors:
This sort of thing has been possible for quite a long time, of course, but it was inherently limited in scope because of the time and money it took. Technology has changed that: it probably required little more than a few hours of coding to create a map that identified every Prop 8 donor in the state. And that map isn't only in the hands of the folks who created it. It's out on the internet where it's practically begging to be abused by some nutball... I remain a bit of a privacy crank who hasn't yet been reconciled to the inevitability of David Brin's "Transparent Society."
In demonstration of his point, one of his commentators posted an even more creepy follow-up:
I'm in San Diego, and went poking around my neighborhood. Its San Diego, so sure enough there's a a handful of 500 and 1000 donations by various folks. But, there is one very large one. I thought that odd, so I saw the guys employer, googled him and sure enough, he went to BYU. Now he might not be a [Mormon], but all signs point to yes. In other words, prop 8 passed because [The Mormon church] got its members in Utah and elsewhere to pony over large sums of money.
As a guy whose political donation history and incredibly detailed personal information can readily be found by Googling my name, this sends a shiver down my spine. We joke about 'cyber stalking' and Googling our dates, but a lot of new social infrastructure has yet to be created to make this emerging transparent society work.

Most particularly, the entire point of Brin's great and prescient essay is that a transparent society only works if it's bilateral. In addition to the searcher being able to see you, you can see the searcher. I would be a lot more comfortable with the ease of access to this information, if it was equally easy for me to see that Joe Smith at 123 Main Street, Anytown USA, has been doing hundreds of searches on people in a particular geographic area.


That searcher information is quite trackable today (by Google) but it isn't public without a lengthy and expensive process of law enforcement powers and subpoena or search warrant, whereas the Prop. 8 and other political donor information is both highly trackable and very public.

That lack of symmetry needs to be addressed for a transparent social compact to work.

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