Will Google Glass enable “augmented advocacy” in a more transparent society?

One of the more interesting aspects of Dave Eggers’ dystopic new novel, “The Circle,” is the introduction of the “SeaChange,” a small, powerful camera that can transmit wireless images to a networked global audience. The SeaChange is adopted by politicians who “go transparent,” broadcasting all of their interactions to the public all day long.

Regardless of whether that degree of radical transparency in beneficial for elected representatives or not, in early 2014, we’ve now seen many early glimpses of what a more networked world full of inexpensive cameras looks like when United States politicians are online and on camera more often, from scandals to threats to slurs to charged comments that may have changed a presidential election. Most of that video has been captured by small video cameras or, increasing, powerful smartphones. Over the next year, more people will be wearing Google Glass, Google’s powerful facial computing device. Even if Google Glass has led to a backlash, the next wave of mobile devices will be wearable, integrated into clothing, wristbands, shoes and other gear. This vision of the future is fast approaching, which means that looking for early signals of various aspects of it is crucial.

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One such signal came across my desktop earlier this week, in the form of a new app for Google Glass from RedEdge, a digital advocacy consultancy based in Arlington, Virginia. Their new “augmented advocacy” application for Google Glass is a proof of concept that demonstrates how government data can be served to someone wearing glass as she moves around the world. It’s not in the GDJ Store but people interested in testing it can request the Glass application file (android 1) from RedEdge, its maker.

“While we don’t expect widespread deployment of this app, though that would be cool, this is a window into what’s possible with wearable computing just using federal department data,” said Ian Spencer, chief technology officer of RedEdge, in an interview. “The data we used to launch this app and populate the database was all sourced from publicly available information. We primarily used publications from the Office of Management and Budget for budget figures, as well as the president’s own budget, for monetary data. Location data on federal buildings was sourced from Google Maps.”

The app leverages Google Glass’s ability to detect the wearer’s location, feeding a government data through RedEdge’s API to populate a relevant card. It pulls in from open data, formatted as JSON, and provides a list of all locations.

“You can just walk around with the app running in background,” said Spencer. “It doesn’t take up a ton of battery life. With geofencing, Glass knows when you’re near a building and triggers the app, which pops in a card that shows you a phone number and budget information. You can then tap to get more information and it loads up public contact information. Eventually the GDK [Glass Developer Kit] will let you make calls and emails.”

Visitors to the White House with this app, for instance, could call the White House switchboard, though they would be unlikely to get President Obama on the phone.
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The RedEdge app is currently limited by the amount of time and investment RedEdge has put into it, along with the technology of Glass itself. “Once we add more data points, we will need a more complicated API,” said Spencer. “User experience was our focus, not massive complete sets. Even if we were using a government API, which would be ideal at some point, we would need a hashing layer so that we don’t overwhelm their servers.”

The only data the developers are feeding into it is the total federal budget for a given agency, not more granular details concerning how it related to programs, their performance or who is in charge of them. It’s very much a “proof of concept.”

“We’re looking at it as a trial balloon,” said Spencer. “It started with our tech team. We haven’t had researchers go over tons of entries. If there is interest in it, we then may do more, like adding more federal data and state-level data.”

One potentially interesting application of augmented advocacy might seem to be Congress, where data from the Sunlight Foundation’s Influence Explorer or Open Congress could be integrated as the Glass wearer walked around. The technical limitations of Glass, however, mean that citizens will need to keep downloading Sunlight’s popular Congress app for smartphones.

“The problem is the precision of the GPS,” said Spencer. “If you’re wearing Glass in the Hart building, you don’t have enough accuracy. You can get building-to-building precision, but not more. There are technical problems with trying to use satellites for this, whether it’s GPS or GLONASS, the Russian version.”

That doesn’t mean such precision might not be possible in the future. As Spencer highlighted, app developers can determine “micropositioning” through wifi or Bluetooth, enabling triangulation within a room. “A classic example comes from marketing in a store –” I see you’re looking at X,” he said.

That technology is already live, as Brian Fung reported in the Washington Post: stores are using cellphones to track shopping habits. In Washington, a more palatable  example might be around the Mall, where geofences and tracking trigger information about Smithsonian paintings, trees, statuary, or monuments.
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The limitation on facial recognition capabilities in Glass also means that the most interesting and disturbing potential application of its gaze is still far away: looking at someone in a lobby, bar, hearing or conference and learning not only who the person is but what role he or she may play in DC’s complicated ecosystem of lobbyists, journalists, Congressional staffers, politicians, media, officials, public advocates and campaign operatives. (For now, the role of the trusted aide, whispering brief identifiers into the ears of the powerful is safe.)

When more apps like this go live in more devices, expect some fireworks to ensure around the United States and the world, as more private and semi-public spaces become recorded. Glass and its descendents will provide evidence of misbehavior by law enforcement, just as cellphones have in recent years. The cameras will be on the faces of officers, as well. While some studies suggest that police wearing cameras may improve the quality of their policing — and civil liberties advocates support their introduction — such devices aren’t popular with the New York City Police Department.

As with the dashboard cameras that supply much of the footage for “Cops” in the United States and offer some protection against corrupt police and fraud in Russia, wearable cameras look likely to end up on the helmets, glasses, lapels or shoulders of many officers in the future, from Los Angeles to London.

The aspirational view of this demo is that it will show how it’s possible to integrate more public data into the life of a citizen without requiring her to pull out a phone.

“There’s a lot of potential for this app to get people to care about an issue and take action,” said Spencer. “It’s about getting people aware. The cool thing about this is its passive nature. You start it once and it tells you when you’re near something.”
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A more dystopian view is that people will see a huge budget number and call the switchboard of a given agency to angrily complain, as opposed to the constituent relations staff of their representatives in Congress.

Given the challenges that Congress already faces with the tidal wave of social media and email that has swelled up over the last decade, that would be unhelpful at best. If future digital advocates want to make the most of such tools, they’ll need to provide users with context for the data they’re being fed, from sources to more information about the issues themselves the progress of existing campaigns.

This initial foray is, after all, just a demo. More integration may be coming in the next generation of wearables.

Privacy and Civil Liberties Report Finds NSA bulk phone records program illegal and ineffective

Earlier this afternoon, I emailed info@pclob.gov in search of the report that the New York Times  and Washington Post had obtained and reported upon this morning. 2 hours later, I received a response: www.pclob.gov. There, visitors can now find, download and read a “Report on the Telephone Records Program Conducted under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act and on the Operations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court” and separate statements by Elisebeth Collins Cook  Rachel Brand. As Charlie Savage and Ellen Nakashima reported, Cook and Brand dissented from the report’s recommendation to end the collection of phone records under the 215 programs of the USA Patriot Act.

The privacy and civil liberties board’s report is strongly critical of the impact that mass surveillance has upon the privacy and civil liberties of American citizens, along with billions of other people around the world.

“The Section 215 bulk telephone records program lacks a viable legal foundation under Section 215, implicates constitutional concerns under the First and Fourth Amendments, raises serious threats to privacy and civil liberties as a policy matter, and has shown only limited value. As a result, the Board recommends that the government end the program.”

PCLOB Board Members meet with President Obama on June 21, 2013​. Photo by Pete Souza.

PCLOB Board Members meet with President Obama on June 21, 2013​. Photo by Pete Souza.

While President Obama met with the board and heard their recommendations prior to his speech last week, his administration is disputing its legal analysis.

“We disagree with the board’s analysis on the legality,” said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, in an e-mail to Bloomberg News. “The administration believes that the program is lawful.”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) was also critical of the report’s findings. “I am disappointed that three members of the Board decided to step well beyond their policy and oversight role and conducted a legal review of a program that has been thoroughly reviewed,” he said in a statement.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation hailed the report as a vindication of its position on the consitutionality of the programs.

“The board’s other recommendations—increasing transparency and changing the FISA court in important ways—similarly reflect a nearly universal consensus that significant reform is needed,” wrote Mark Rumold, a staff attorney. “In the coming weeks, PCLOB is set to release a second report addressing the NSA’s collection under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. We hope that the board will apply similar principles and recognize the threat of mass surveillance to the privacy rights of all people, not just American citizens.”

Opening IRS e-file data would add innovation and transparency to $1.6 trillion U.S. nonprofit sector

One of the most important open government data efforts in United States history came into being in 1993, when citizen archivist Carl Malamud used a small planning grant from the National Science Foundation to license data from the Securities and Exchange Commission, published the SEC data on the Internet and then operated it for two years. At the end of the grant, the SEC decided to make the EDGAR data available itself — albeit not without some significant prodding — and has continued to do so ever since. You can read the history behind putting periodic reports of public corporations online at Malamud’s website, public.resource.org.

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Two decades later, Malamud is working to make the law public, reform copyright, and free up government data again, buying, processing and publishing millions of public tax filings from nonprofits to the Internal Revenue Service. He has made the bulk data from these efforts available to the public and anyone else who wants to use it.

“This is exactly analogous to the SEC and the EDGAR database,” Malamud told me, in an phone interview last year. The trouble is that data has been deliberately dumbed down, he said. “If you make the data available, you will get innovation.”

Making millions of Form 990 returns free online is not a minor public service. Despite many nonprofits file their Form 990s electronically, the IRS does not publish the data. Rather, the government agency releases images of millions of returns formatted as .TIFF files onto multiple DVDs to people and companies willing and able to pay thousands of dollars for them. Services like Guidestar, for instance, acquire the data, convert it to PDFs and use it to provide information about nonprofits. (Registered users view the returns on their website.)

As Sam Roudman reported at TechPresident, Luke Rosiak, a senior watchdog reporter for the Washington Examiner, took the files Malamud published and made them more useful. Specifically, he used credits for processing that Amazon donated to participants in the 2013 National Day of Civic Hacking to make the .TIFF files text-searchable. Rosiak then set up CItizenAudit.org a new website that makes nonprofit transparency easy.

“This is useful information to track lobbying,” Malamud told me. “A state attorney general could just search for all nonprofits that received funds from a donor.”

Malamud estimates nearly 9% of jobs in the U.S. are in this sector. “This is an issue of capital allocation and market efficiency,” he said. “Who are the most efficient players? This is more than a CEO making too much money — it’s about ensuring that investments in nonprofits get a return.

Malamud’s open data is acting as a platform for innovation, much as legislation.gov.uk is the United Kingdom. The difference is that it’s the effort of a citizen that’s providing the open data, not the agency: Form 990 data is not on Data.gov.

Opening Form 990 data should be a no-brainer for an Obama administration that has taken historic steps to open government dataLiberating nonprofit sector data would provide useful transparency into a $1.6 trillion dollar sector for the U.S. economy.

After many letters to the White House and discussions with the IRS, however, Malamud filed suit against the IRS to release Form 990 data online this summer.

“I think inertia is behind the delay,” he told me, in our interview. “These are not the expense accounts of government employees. This is something much more fundamental about a $1.6 trillion dollar marketplace. It’s not about who gave money to a politician.”

When asked for comment, a spokesperson for the White House Office of Management and Budget said that the IRS “has been engaging on this topic with interested stakeholders” and that “the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2014 revenue proposals would let the IRS receive all Form 990 information electronically, allowing us to make all such data available in machine readable format.”

Today, Malamud sent a letter of complaint to Howard Shelanski, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the White House Office of Management and Budget, asking for a review of the pricing policies of the IRS after a significant increase year-over-year. Specifically, Malamud wrote that the IRS is violating the requirements of President Obama’s executive order on open data:

The current method of distribution is a clear violation of the President’s instructions to
move towards more open data formats, including the requirements of the May 9, 2013
Executive Order making “open and machine readable the new default for government
information.”

I believe the current pricing policies do not make any sense for a government
information dissemination service in this century, hence my request for your review.
There are also significant additional issues that the IRS refuses to address, including
substantial privacy problems with their database and a flat-our refusal to even
consider release of the Form 990 E-File data, a format that would greatly increase the
transparency and effectiveness of our non-profit marketplace and is required by law.

It’s not clear at all whether the continued pressure from Malamud, the obvious utility of CitizenAudit.org or the bipartisan budget deal that President Obama signed in December will push the IRS to freely release open government data about the nonprofit sector,

The furor last summer over the IRS investigating the status of conservative groups claimed tax-exempt status, however, could carry over into political pressure to reform. If political groups were tax-exempt and nonprofit e-file data were published about them, it would be possible for auditors, journalists and Congressional investigators to detect patterns. The IRS would need to be careful about scrubbing the data of personal information: last year, the IRS mistakenly exposed thousands of Social Security numbers when it posted 527 forms online — an issue that Malamud, as it turns out, discovered in an audit.

“This data is up there with EDGAR, in terms of its potential,” said Malamud. “There are lots of databases. Few are as vital to government at large. This is not just about jobs. It’s like not releasing patent data.”

If the IRS were to modernize its audit system, inspector generals could use automated predictive data analysis to find aberrations to flag for a human to examine, enabling government watchdogs and investigative journalists to potentially detect similar issues much earlier.

That level of data-driven transparency remains in the future. In the meantime, CitizenAudit.org is currently running on a server in Rosiak’s apartment.

Whether the IRS adopts it as the SEC did EDGAR remains to be seen.

[Image Credit: Meals on Wheels]

Will White House epetitions drive change or disillusionment?

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An epetition for The White House that really worked? Yep. 

P.J. Vogt, a producer for NPR’s “On The Media,” was surprised to find that a “We the People” epetition had played a role in the FCC moving to make a deal with wireless carriers that will allow consumers to unlock their cellphones.

He’s not alone. Historic lows in trust in the federal government mean that any progress toward a positive outcome — like legal unlocking of mobile devices — is viewed skeptically in public discourse.

Should carriers actually allow consumers to unlock those devices, it would be the the open government platform has now played a role in U.S. history.

I’ve been following the White House epetition system since it launched, more than 2 years ago. Prior to the 2012 election, this open government effort was a relatively slow burn, in terms of growth. Until the fall of 2012, the most significant role it had played came in January of that year, when the White House took an official position on petitions on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), changing the political context for the bills.

As I’ve observed before, on the evening of December 20, 2012, however, President Barack Obama responded to 32 different e-petitions related to gun violence. It was the first direct response to an e-petition at The White House by a President of the United States. While this remains the only e-petition that the President has responded to personally, before or since, it was a milestone in digital government, marking the first time that the President spoke directly to the people through the Internet about an issue they had collectively asked to be addressed using the Internet.

By January 2013, it had 5 million users. Now, there are over 10 million. It’s the first open government platform to reach that scale of use, in no small part due to the epic response to the Death Star petition that drew both Internet-wide and mainstream media attention.

And here’s the thing: most of those users are satisfied with the responses. Not all of them have resulted in policy shifts — in fact, only a few have, like a rulemaking on online puppy mills — but the ones that did are significant: SOPA/PIPA, increasing public access to scientific research online, and supporting consumers unlocking their mobile devices.

More challenging requests lie ahead. An epetition for the administration to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act just passed the 100,000 signature threshold this week, requiring a response.

The epetition will join a dozen or so popular online petitions that have passed the threshold, some of which have lingered unanswered for over a year.

This tardiness of response might lead critics of the administration to conclude that this White House putting off public responses to popular petitions it finds politically inconvenient, like the one to pardon Edward Snowden.

Even if that’s the case, if this trend continues, these epetitions from the American people look a bit less like a useless exercise in democracy theater at week’s end.

In 2014, the White House has announced a plan to launch a public version of the application programming interface (API) for “We The People,” enabling third parties to build applications on top of it.

Should mainstream adoption continue, American citizens may find a bonafide means to exercise their right to petition the United States government for the redress of grievances in the public desire of the twenty-first century.

HHS CISO: “no successful security attacks on Healthcare.gov”

obamacare-hackOne of the persistent concerns about Healthcare.gov regards the security of the federal health insurance exchange marketplace, as I reported for Politico Magazine this month. At least one glaring security flaw remained unpatched until the end of October. Despite the “big fix” announced on December 1, the security of the website and the backend systems behind it have not only remained in doubt, given issues that have come out in Congressional testimony but have now become the subject of contentious exchanges between the United States House Oversight Committee and the Department of Health and Human Services, which operates them.

Today, Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee released a memorandum regarding a security briefing on the Affordable Care Act (embedded below) that includes a summary of a classified briefing from Dr. Kevin Charest, the HHS Chief Information Security Officer, and Ned Holland, HHS Assistant Secretary for Administration. The memorandum states that “there have been no successful security attacks on Healthcare.gov. In it, Dr. Charest is quoted as saying that “no person or group has hacked into Healthcare.gov, and no person or group has maliciously accessed any personally identifiable information from users.”

The authors of the memorandum, Representatives Henry A. Waxman and Diana DeGette, write that “the information provided in the briefing was reassuring,” given the assurances of the chief information security officer that “the security of Healthcare.gov has not been breached, and hackers have had no access to personally identifiable information.”

Despite this letter, it’s not clear whether the Healthcare.gov security concerns that TrustedSec has highlighted have been addressed. Given the continued focus of Congressional committees on the issue, expect more assessments and audits to emerge in the future.

ODNI declassifies more intelligence documents after White House order, ACLU, EFF suits

I’m still digesting the additional documents the U.S. director of national intelligence released last night. The New York Times’ coverage of the latest documents released notes that they include a 2006 “ruling in which the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court first approved a program to systematically track Americans’ emails during the Bush administration.”

The opinion, signed by Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, permitted the NSA to gather email addresses and other forms of Internet communication in bulk  — but not the content of those communications. Law professor Orin Kerr has “major problems” with the FISC opinion:

“By imagining that the statute provides more protection than it does, and by then construing the ambiguity in the statute in the government’s favor, the FISC’s opinion ends up approving a program that Congress did not contemplate using privacy protections Congress did not contemplate either,” he wrote, at his blog. “The resulting opinion endorses a program that appears to be pretty far from the text of the statute.”

Taken in sum, the Guardian holds that these FISA court opinions show that the NSA demonstrated disregard for the privacy protections that are constitutionally afforded to American citizens under the Fourth Amendment.

Transparency, at last?

On the one hand, the intelligence community’s Tumblr blog and Twitter account have been an effective means of distributing and publicizing the document releases it is publishing on odni.gov, its website. That’s a measure of transparency, although the redacted, scanned documents are not “opening the kimono” all the way.

On the other hand, if you only read the ODNI’s press release and posts at that tumblr (which are quite similar,) you wouldn’t know that the documents released are not only pursuant to President Barack Obama directive to DNI Clapper to declassify information relevant to NSA bulk data collection.

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As Cyrus Farivar reported for Ars Technica, “the documents, which include annual reports from the Attorney General to Congress, memos, presentations, and training documents, were released in relation to an Electronic Frontier Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union [Freedom of Information Act] lawsuit.”

The overarching context for the release of nearly 2000 documents are the leaks of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, whose disclosures to The Guardian and Washington Post prompted President Barack Obama’s directive to ODNI.<

So, this is what "open government" looks like in 2013: networked, nuanced and opaque. Official documents are released in response to the reports of whistleblowers,  and then distributed through the government's official channels online and reported, factchecked and through the 4th and 5th Estates.

This dynamic only bound to get more interesting from here on out.

Should Congress criminalize online “revenge pornography”?

1-Blind-JusticeAShould “revenge porn” be made a crime? In California, revenge porn could soon be illegal.

This weekend, in an op-ed for CNN.com, University of Maryland law professor Danielle Citron argues that Congress and other states in the union also should move to criminalize sharing nude pictures of a person without that person’s consent.

“New Jersey is the only state to make it a felony to disclose a person’s nude or partially nude images without that person’s consent,” she writes. “The New Jersey statute is a helpful model for states like California that are considering proposals to criminalize revenge porn. Congress should amend the federal cyberstalking law, 18 U.S.C. § 2261A, to cover the use of any interactive computer service to produce or disclose a sexually graphic visual depiction of an individual without that individual’s consent.”

Citron argues that that, given the profound effects upon someone’s personal and professional life in the schools, workplaces and communities they inhabit “offline,” criminalizing this online action is a necessary curb on the damage it can do. She makes a strong case that the U.S. Code should catch up to the pace of technological change.

We’re several years past the time the world crossed a Rubicon, with respect to the ability to share embarrassing images of one another. The global adoption of cheap camera phones, smartphones, social networks, search engines and wireless Internet access has created a tidal wave of disruptions across industries, governments and nations. Taking pictures with the world has been made trivially easy by those technologies, a capability that can capture both our best and worst moments.

When combined with the capacity to share those images with the rest of humanity in an instant, billions of people now wield great power in their back pockets. Whether they uphold the responsibility that comes with it is in question, given what history shows us of humans acting badly to those who have less power in society. The power to publicize and shame others is not equally distributed, given the expense of devices, data, and unequal access between the sexes.

In her op-ed, Citron anticipates the First Amendment concerns of organizations like the ACLU, arguing that it’s possible to craft sufficient limits into legislation — again, using New Jersey’s law as a model — that will enable the United States to preserve constitutional protections for free speech online.

“First Amendment protections are less rigorous for purely private matters because the threat of liability would not risk chilling the meaningful exchange of ideas,” writes Citron.

“Listeners and speakers have no legitimate interest in nude photos or sex tapes published without the subjects’ permission. That online users can claim a prurient interest in viewing sexual images does not transform them into a matter of legitimate public concern. Nonconsensual pornography lacks First Amendment value as a historical matter, and could be understood as categorically unprotected as obscenity. Although the Court’s obscenity doctrine has developed along different lines with distinct justifications, nonconsensual pornography can be seen as part of obscenity’s long tradition of proscription.”

The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the California legislation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation has expressed concerns with how broadly it has been drafted.

Legal precision in how legislatures make revenge porn a criminal offense really will matter here, given both existing statutes and the number of entities that are involved in the act, from the person who took the image to the site that hosts it to the people who spread it.

Making anyone but the original person who broke the trust of another by uploading the picture culpable would run up against Section 230 of the United States Communications Decency Act, which provides “intermediary liability,” protecting online platforms from being held liable for user-generated content shared on them.

As more people gain the ability to take, store and share digital images, however, improving systems that govern non-consensual surveillance and distribution looks precisely like the kind of thorny problem that our elected representatives should grapple with in the 21st century.

Societies around the world will need to find answers that reconcile online civil rights with longstanding constitutional protections. The way the United States handles the issue could be a model for other states to consider — or not, if a dysfunctional Congress proves unable to enact effective legislation, a scenario that unfortunately seems all too likely over the next year.