Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Transparent intentions

Lifestyle/Technology | There are reasons to be skeptical about claims of "transparency" from those with an agenda

Issue: "The schools that Arne built," April 11, 2009

"Transparency" is currently a golden word in government, but what does it mean in practice? A recent column by Ed Felton in the Information Technology Policy blog distinguished between "transparency" and "outreach," which used to be called propaganda: "Here's the difference: outreach means government telling us what it wants us to hear; transparency means giving us the information that we, the citizens, want to get." Felton noted that politicians typically see Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube as efficient ways for the one-way flow of messages to constituents. "Transparency" without systems that allow citizens to discover what the government is doing is actually "outreach."

What about document transparency? Wikileaks.com describes itself as "an uncensorable version of Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis." The website allows whistle blowers to submit documents "anonymously and untraceably," and other users to discuss and analyze those documents. The website brags that it is "better principled and less parochial than any governmental intelligence agency. . . . It has no commercial or national interests at heart; its only interest is the revelation of the truth. . . . What conscience cannot contain, and institutional secrecy unjustly conceals, Wikileaks can broadcast to the world."

Sounds good, but last month Wikileaks posted personal information-including the last four digits of credit cards and security codes-of donors to Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman's Senate campaign. The website wrote: "Although politically interesting in their own right, the lists, which are part of an enormous 4.3Gb database leak from the Coleman campaign, provide proof to the rumors that sensitive information-including thousands of supporters' credit card numbers-were put onto the Internet on Jan. 28 as a result of sloppy handling by the campaign." Wikileaks justifies publishing the data because it says the Coleman campaign had a poorly designed website, but it's hard to see how revealing sensitive information about Coleman donors is part of a noble mission.

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And do you want your internet surfing to be transparent? If Google tracks the websites you visit and determines you have an interest in gardening or travel, and then places ads related to those interests on the websites you visit, is that helpful or creepy? Google recently promoted its new "Interest Based Advertising" program as a way to "make the ads you see on the web more interesting." The company emphasized that the program, from which users can opt out, gives control over advertising to consumers, but Wired.com was wary: "Google often says that it believes ads are information. What it doesn't say, but clearly believes, is that you are information to be indexed, made accessible and useful."

On the other hand, Google Flu Trends, introduced last November, shows how search inquiries can help predict the onset of flu up to two weeks earlier than the traditional methods used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Google hypothesized that people would conduct search inquiries related to the flu when they began to feel sick. Although still experimental, the trend lines predicted by Google searches are tracking closely the CDC trend lines. Google provides the information for the country as a whole and by state and is hoping to use this methodology to predict and prevent epidemics, droughts, and other "emerging threats before they become local, regional, or global crises."

Friendly confines

By Susan Olasky

If you've taken the plunge and opened a Facebook account but are still uneasy about who will read the items you post, you can exert more control over your account by developing "friends lists." This feature allows you to divide your friends into different groups and then customize privacy settings for each group in a fashion visible only to you. Perhaps you don't want to subject your business colleagues to your frequent status updates that describe the trivial things you do each day. "Friends Lists" allow you to subdivide your list of friends into groups based on the type of information you'd like them to receive about you.

To set up a friends list, go to the top of the Facebook page and click on Friends. Then click on "Make a new list." Assign it a descriptive title: neighbors, colleagues, students, church. Immediately a box will appear on the page. If only a few people belong to that category, you can begin typing their names. Or you can click on "select multiple friends" and begin selecting friends from a list.

Once you have your friends assigned to their proper groups, you need to go to Settings at the top right side of your Facebook page. Click on Privacy. Click on Profile within the privacy settings, and then within each category click on customize and specify which friends have access to what.

Security threat

By Susan Olasky

Barack Obama's insistence on maintaining a BlackBerry opens up new security concerns for his staff, according to CNET. Experts may have figured out how to protect his emails, but it is more difficult to devise a way to protect the secrecy of his location, since it is fairly easy to track a BlackBerry's unique serial number as it communicates with nearby cell towers.

If the president is surrounded by aides carrying BlackBerrys, adversaries would not immediately know which phone is his. But, CNET explains, "as staffers go home for the evening, and Secret Service agents rotate out of duty, an adversary can strike their IMEI numbers off of the list. Within days, that initial list of 100 BlackBerrys can be reduced down to a single IMEI identifying the president's phone."

CNET describes several ways around the problem: The president could regularly get a new phone and thus a new serial number. If only one serial number keeps changing, though, it wouldn't take long to identify that as the president's device. The whole staff could regularly get new BlackBerrys, but that would be costly. The staff could rotate devices, which would be inconvenient but possible.

After analyzing several other scenarios, the article concludes: "As you can see, the use of a BlackBerry by the president creates a number of very real security headaches that are no doubt keeping several people at the Secret Service awake at night. While the initial focus of the press was on the e-mail and smartphone technology in the president's phone, the real threats and risks are actually associated with more boring functions of the device."

Unwanted ads

By Susan Olasky

According to Informationweek.com, fake job ads are up 345 percent over the past three years. Scammers are using these ads to commit identity theft. The article recommends ways to avoid being scammed: Set up a new email address for use when job-searching in order to protect yourself from some spam and pfishing attacks; avoid websites that require users to type in a Social Security number, driver's license number, or address; don't put a Social Security number on a resumé; and check out employment companies with the Better Business Bureau.

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.


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