Posts Tagged ‘Transparency in government’

We need transparency more than privacy

September 9, 2013


When I start to rant about the NSA and its threat to the right of privacy, some of my friends point out that I already gave up much of my right to privacy years ago.

In return for a supermarket discount card, I let the supermarket monitor my purchase and (no doubt) sell the information to advertising agencies.  The same with my credit card company.  The same with Google.   There’s lots of information about me available on-line, and anybody with access to all of it can put it together to draw a picture of me—which may or may not be accurate.

Most of this doesn’t bother me partly because it doesn’t touch on the things I really want to keep private, but more importantly, it is largely harmless.  Amazon’s computer algorithm guesses what books I might like, sometimes correctly and sometimes not, but this is something that doesn’t affect my life.

On the other hand, when a credit rating agency compiles information about me behind my back, this can do me great harm, even if the information is incorrect.  I can image the NSA using algorithms similar to Amazon’s to guess what kind of political activity I might like.  All this affects my life, but in the case of the credit rating, it is very difficult to correct wrong information and, in the case of the NSA, I don’t even know what it is.

transparentsocietyAll this put me in mind of a book some friends told me about when it first came out in 1997—David Brin’s The Transparent Society.  I never read it, but I’m familiar with Brin’s argument.  He said that improvements in recording and information processing technology, plus the Internet, make it possible to discover more about what people are doing than ever before.

The question for Brin is not whether government and corporations know what we the people do as whether we the people know what they do.  Rather than engage in a futile effort to prevent the use of universally available technology, we the people should use it to level the playing field.

He gave the example of the surveillance cameras that are ubiquitous in Britain and more and more common in the USA.  Rather than get rid of them, he said, make the recordings universally available.

Brin coined the word sousveillance as an alternative to surveillance—scrutiny from below rather than scrutiny from above.   Imagine being able to access what the surveillance camera sees, in real time or on your smart phone.  Wouldn’t this contribute just as much to public safety as having somebody at a police station trying to monitor all the cameras?

As for myself, I think it is a good thing, not a bad thing, that there is a public record of what goes on in public places.  If I get into an altercation with someone, especially a police officer, and there is a dispute as to what happened, I am glad there is a public record so that the judge doesn’t have to decide whose word to take.

Barack Obama back in the days when he was an Illinois state senator got the legislature to pass a bill for videotaping of police interrogations to be made available to juries.  That’s a positive example of transparency.  Another is the citizens videotaping police when they make arrests.  It is a reasonable tradeoff that the police make their own videotapes, provided they are available to the public and especially to courts.

This is a deep and complicated subject.   Biven a choice, I would rather know what government and corporate officials are doing that affects me than to be able to hide from them.   I want to take down the one-way mirror through which they watch me, and replace it with a pane of glass through which we both can see each other.  What do you think?


Why is the TPP draft treaty such a big secret?

June 20, 2013

President Obama in his last State of the Union address said that he hopes to see the United States ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, an proposed treaty among at least 12 nations on both sides of the Pacific that would set rules of what members governments could and couldn’t do in regard to financial regulation, intellectual property rights and much else.

But the Obama administration refuses to disclose precisely what is in the draft treaty or what the United States is asking for.  That’s classified information.

That is to say, the classification system, whose original stated purpose was to make it a crime to disclose military secrets to foreign enemies, is being used to make it a crime to reveal the government’s proposed trade treaty to the American public.

Government bodies have held closed and secret meetings from time immemorial, and journalists and legislators have found out about them as best they could.  But making it a crime to reveal what goes on in those meetings has historically been regarded as unconstitutional.

At some point, of course, the text of the treaty will have to be disclosed.  The Obama administration’s intent seems to be to keep everything secret until the last moment, and thus rush the treaty through Congress on a “fast track” vote with a minimum of discussion.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, the outspoken Massachusetts Democrat, courageously voted against Michael Froman to be U.S. trade representatives because of his refusal to answer simple questions about the TPP.  Here’s what she said about it.

Senator Elizabeth Warren

Senator Elizabeth Warren

I have heard the argument that transparency would undermine the Trade Representative’s policy to complete the trade agreement because public opposition would be significant.  In other words, if people knew what was going on, they would stop it.  This argument is exactly backwards.  If transparency would lead to widespread public opposition to a trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not be the policy of the United States.

I believe in transparency and democracy, and I think the U.S. Trade Representative should too.

I asked the President’s nominee to be Trade Representative — Michael Froman – three questions: First, would he commit to releasing the composite bracketed text? Or second, if not, would he commit to releasing just a scrubbed version of the bracketed text that made anonymous which country proposed which provision. (Note: Even the Bush Administration put out the scrubbed version during negotiations around the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement.)

Third, I asked Mr. Froman if he would provide more transparency behind what information is made to the trade office’s outside advisers.  Currently, there are about 600 outside advisers that have access to sensitive information, and the roster includes a wide diversity of industry representatives and some labor and NGO representatives too. But there is no transparency around who gets what information and whether they all see the same things, and I think that’s a real problem.

Mr. Froman’s response was clear: No, no, no.

via naked capitalism.

The outside advisers, by the way, reportedly include 500 representatives of industry and finance, and 100 from all other groups; they, too, are sworn to secrecy.  Senators and Representatives have been forbidden to share what little they know even with their own staffs.  Recently Rep. Alan Grayson, an outspoken Florida Democrat, was allowed to see a version of the draft treaty.

Rep. Alan Grayson

Rep. Alan Grayson

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) told HuffPost on Monday that he viewed an edited version of the negotiation texts last week, but that secrecy policies at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative created scheduling difficulties that delayed his access for nearly six weeks.

The Obama administration has barred any Congressional staffers from reviewing the full negotiation text and prohibited members of Congress from discussing the specific terms of the text with trade experts and reporters.  Staffers on some committees are granted access to portions of the text under their committee’s jurisdiction.

“This, more than anything, shows the abuse of the classified information system,” Grayson told HuffPost.  “They maintain that the text is classified information.  And I get clearance because I’m a member of Congress, but now they tell me that they don’t want me to talk to anybody about it because if I did, I’d be releasing classified information.”


“What I saw was nothing that could possibly justify the secrecy that surrounds it,” Grayson said, referring to the draft Trans-Pacific deal.  “It is ironic in a way that the government thinks it’s alright to have a record of every single call that an American makes, but not alright for an American citizen to know what sovereign powers the government is negotiating away.”

via Huffington Post.


Obama’s promise of transparency

April 4, 2011

News item: Obama given award for transparency.

Click on Mike Keefe Political Cartoons for more like this.