Strata Week: President Obama opens up U.S. government data

U.S. opens data, Wong tapped for U.S. chief privacy officer, FBI might read your email sans warrant, and big data spells trouble for anonymity.

U.S. government data to be machine-readable, Nicole Wong may fill new White House chief privacy officer role

The U.S. government took major steps this week to open up government data to the public. U.S. President Obama signed an executive order requiring government data to be made available in machine-readable formats, and the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy released a Open Data Policy memo (PDF) to address the order’s implementation.

The press release announcing the actions notes the benefit the U.S. economy historically has experienced with the release of government data — GPS data, for instance, sparked a flurry of innovation that ultimately contributed “tens of billions of dollars in annual value to the American economy,” according to the release. President Obama noted in a statement that he hopes a similar result will come from this open data order: “Starting today, we’re making even more government data available online, which will help launch even more new startups. And we’re making it easier for people to find the data and use it, so that entrepreneurs can build products and services we haven’t even imagined yet.”

FCW’s Adam Mazmanian notes a bit from the Open Data Policy memo that indicates the open data framework doesn’t only apply to data the government intends to make public. The memo states, “Whether or not particular information can be made public, agencies can apply this framework to all information resources to promote efficiency and produce value.” Mazmanian also points out that though the memo mandates “a common architecture across agencies, with data showcased on a page reachable by adding ‘/data’ to the agency URL,” few such pages exist, adding that the Census Bureau and the Federal Communication Commission are notable exceptions.

For more on the importance of the executive order, U.S CTO Todd Park and U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel put together a two-minute video for the White House’s On the Clock video series:

In related news, Peter Delevett reports at Mercury News that Nicole Wong, currently Twitter’s legal director and previously deputy general counsel at Google, appears to be on the short list of candidates to become the White House’s chief privacy officer, a new position created by President Obama to function as a senior advisor to his chief technology officer, Todd Park. Meghan Kelly at VentureBeat notes that Wong is a particularly interesting pick “because she knows the ins and outs of how big technology companies like to use that data themselves.”

FBI documents “strongly suggest” they read citizens emails sans warrants

On the heels of uncovering internal documents from the IRS that indicate the government agency doesn’t feel it needs to obtain a warrant to search citizen’s emails, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has uncovered documents that suggest a similar policy at the FBI. Cyrus Farivar reports at Ars Technica that the ACLU this week published “the first public copy of the 2012 edition of the FBI’s Domestic Investigations Operations Guide.”

Farivar highlights the section in the documents that addresses wire or electronic communications, which states, in part:

“Contents in ‘electronic storage’ (e.g., unopened e-mail and voice mail) require a search warrant. See 18 U.S.c. § 2703(a). A distinction is made between the contents of communications that are in electronic storage (e.g., unopened e-mail) for less than 180 days and those in ‘electronic storage’ for longer than 180 days, or those that are no longer in ‘electronic storage’ (e.g., opened e-mail).”

What this means, Farivar writes, is that “under the much-maligned (but frustratingly still-current) 1986-era Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), law enforcement must get a warrant to access e-mail before it has been opened by the recipient. However, there are no such provisions once the e-mail has been opened or if it has been sitting in an inbox, unopened, for 180 days.”

In a post at the ACLU blog, Nathan Freed Wessler notes that the FBI documents they received don’t directly say whether or not FBI agents always get warrants or not, but, he says, “they strongly suggest that they don’t.” Wessler also covers documents the ACLU has received from U.S. Attorneys’ offices around the country that suggest they’re “applying conflicting standards to access communications content.” You can access all documents received by the ACLU in response to its Freedom of Information Act request filed with the U.S. government on the ACLU’s website.

Your big data might predict your future

As people produce more and more personal data, sometimes without even realizing it, it’s becoming harder and harder to protect identities and to remain anonymous. As some have demonstrated, even taking precautions to protect an identity can prove ineffective.

At MIT Technology Review this week, Patrick Tucker takes a look at the effect exponentially expanding amounts of data are having on our personal privacy, both online and off. He covers the myriad ways companies gather consumer data to target particular markets, to identify individuals who meet particular criteria. But the effect of big data doesn’t stop at identification — Tucker notes that the growing amounts of data are making it possible to predict what a person will be doing in the future. He writes:

“Last year Adam Sadilek, a University of Rochester researcher, and John Krumm, an engineer at Microsoft’s research lab, showed they could predict a person’s approximate location up to 80 weeks into the future, at an accuracy of above 80 percent. To get there, the pair mined what they described as a ‘massive data set’ collecting 32,000 days of GPS readings taken from 307 people and 396 vehicles.”

Data like this, Tucker notes, would allow companies to send ads with offers based on where a consumer will be in the near future. You can read his full report at MIT Technology Review.

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