Posts Tagged ‘open data’


FOI Daily Dose: NSA denies reporter’s FOIA request, open-data company to expand government data trove

NSA denies ProPublica reporter’s FOIA request for his own records

Jeff Larson of ProPublica filed a freedom of information request with the National Security Agency (NSA) asking for any personal data the agency collected about him, and his request was denied, according to ProPublica.

Larson filed the request on June 13, shortly after the first of the NSA’s mass surveillance systems was unveiled on June 6. He received a letter from the agency’s Chief FOIA Officer Pamela Phillips on June 24 neither confirming nor denying that the agency had his metadata and warning him any response could “allow our adversaries to accumulate information and draw conclusions about the NSA’s technical capabilities, sources, and methods.”

In the letter (see here), Phillips cites section 215 of the Patriot Act to justify the NSA’s surveillance in the interest of national security and tells Larson granting his request would compromise classified information (the existence or non-existence of such metadata).

Ultimately, Larson concluded he would have to file a lawsuit if he actually wanted to see his records. While he was in touch with the NSA, he learned that their FOIA office has received more than 1,000 information requests since June 7 and hasn’t approved any Privacy Act requests for metadata, according to ProPublica.

“We do not search operational records on specific individuals,” Phillips told Larson.

Open-data company raises money to expand government data trove

An open-data cloud software company that plans to put the NSA’s data online and analyze it raised $18 million to share more government information with the general public, according to TechCrunch.

The Seattle-based Socrata consumerizes “untapped” government data by putting it into accessible and usable forms for citizens, developers and government employees. The funding came from OpenView Venture Partners, Morgenthaler Ventures and Frazier Technology Partners, and as part of the deal,  Scott Maxwell of OpenView will join Socrata’s board.

Along with hiring more staff, the company said it will use its new funds to expand its cloud infrastructure and develop portals and apps it calls “the next wave of open data and government performance innovations.” One of Socrata’s most recent apps called GovStat allows government agencies to set goals and measure their impact against data. GeekWire said many cities are already using Socrata for everything from compiling restaurant inspection data to election results and voter information.

TechCrunch asked Socrata about its plans for the NSA’s data, and Socrata said it has a platform “designed to help put the government online to see what it is doing with the data and what can be built from it.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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FOI DAILY DOSE: British Columbia gets proactive about open gov, Mass. budget planned in secret

British Columbia plans for more transparency

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark is poised to make good on her promise to make government more transparent, notably with a directive supporting the active disclosure of data.

Clark has already promoted online communications and town-hall meetings as important avenues for open government, and her proposed policy of proactive disclosure would greatly increase citizens’ access to government information.

British Columbia’s government would regularly make data public that is currently only accessible through formal freedom of information act requests, according to a Vancouver Sun editorial.

Clark plans to move toward an open data model that will provide citizens with information on a variety of topics, ranging from the environment to health to spending, in a searchable and easily accessible format.

Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has warned the government that privacy rights must be considered when planning such broad information disclosures.

Stephanie Cadieux, Minister of Labour, Citizens’ Services and Open Government,  and the cabinet committee on open government are developing a specific game plan for implementing this open data policy, although – ironically – it is exempt from access-to-information legislation (as are all cabinet committees).

Mass. budget negotiated behind closed doors

The Massachusetts legislature negotiated a $30.6 billion budget deal in almost total secrecy.

The budget, approved in July, was planned by six legislators who met for 24 days in discussions kept out of the public’s notice. The locations and times for the meet-ups, as well as their agendas and debates, were kept quiet, and no minutes were taken for any of the meetings, according to the Boston Globe.

This kind of information blackout isn’t uncommon in Massachusetts, which has almost no requirements for lawmakers to publicly discuss government business. Fewer than 20 states have similar secrecy practices, and Massachusetts is one of about 10 states in which citizens don’t even have the right to see legislators’ records.

Although public testimony was collected and floor debates were held concerning the budget, the key choices made at the opening and closing of deliberations were decided in secret.

When the legislature votes to approve measures, it is often more of a formality because key leaders have already made the real agreements behind closed doors.

If you want to know more about Massachusetts’ not-so-open open government laws and how they compare to those of other states, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has an open government guide that’s awfully helpful.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

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FOI DAILY DOSE: Agent accuses ATF of retaliation, Wired editorial examines open data dump issues

Ex-ATF agent accuses agency of retaliation over Project Gunrunner

An agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has accused his employer of retaliating against him for publicizing information on an agency scandal.

Vince Cefalu said he was given notice of his termination last week in a move he argues is motivated by his decision to speak out against “Project Gunrunner,” a scandal that revealed the ATF’s role in permitting thousands of guns to be sent across the U.S.-Mexico border and end up in the possession of Mexican drug gangs.

Cefalu’s termination letter doesn’t mention the Gunrunner situation, according to Fox News. One of the main reasons for firing him stated in the letter was his decision to leak documents on CleanupATF.org, a website Cefalu helped establish.

The Project Gunrunner fiasco led to congressional hearings on the issue and a public statement by Obama that the operation was a mistake.

Two days before Cefalu was notified of his firing, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., sent the ATF a letter telling its officials to refrain from retaliating against whistleblowers.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, posted a short comment online stating that the only acceptable response to this action by the ATF, if it turns out to have actually been whistleblower retaliation, is for a race between a few legislators and Obama to be “the first to kick the ass of the idiot at ATF who tried this.”

Wired editorial: Open data initiatives not sufficient by themselves

A Wired editorial by Jesse Lichtenstein examines the push for open data programs throughout the world, noting that dumping tons of government information online doesn’t mean transparency has been achieved.

Putting more government information online – as at least 16 countries have been doing via open data initiatives – is a step forward for transparency, but it can backfire.

Lichtenstein mentions the Bhoomi Project, which aimed to digitize about 20 million land titles in the Indian state of Karnataka, as an example of how data dumps can cause problems rather than provide open government solutions.

Instead of helping small landholders, the project helped corporations and wealthy tycoons that used the newly revealed data to challenge titles and find potential bribery targets.

If people aren’t taught to access and sift through the data governments put online, then the so-called data divide will widen and open data initiatives will fail to provide countries’ whole citizenry with better transparency.

Read the entire Wired editorial.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

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