In the CBS show, "Person of Interest", a computer program flags names based on behavior patterns and signals that some type of danger or crime might ensue. The heroes in each episode follow every lead methodically until they figure out what the danger is and who was accountable for it. Often, they are able to stop the bad guy for carrying out their evil deeds. Most of their information comes from keystrokes assimilating data points from various sources. Based on headlines of drones watching citizens, "enemies" lists, Google street view taking in home wi-fi data, it may feel for many of us like we are living out an unending episode of "Person of Interest" and one might wonder how easy it might be to be labeled a "bad guy" or an enemy.
It is all too easy in the digital age. In fact, there is a free Facebook app called "EnemyGraph" which I covered in another post in April. In the United States, in the name of "government transparency", we have a lot of laws on the books to make sure that our processes are open, transparent, and easy to monitor by its citizens. Many of these laws have provided greater transparency and the ability for public citizens to ask questions and get information. This is part of our Republic and this process is a badge of honor for the United States. Unfortunately, the transparency in this digital age, can be taken out of context and create an imbalance that weighs more heavily on individual citizens instead of the government.
Many of us were taught by our parents that political discussion outside the kitchen table was impolite. And, if we did discuss it outside the home, we were to be civil and listen to different points of view. Last week the press reported that a website called "KeepingGOPHonest" had created an "enemies" list. They are not the first or last group to create a campaign list of "friends" vs. "enemies." Some of you may have shrugged and thought that creating this list might be considered strategy or transparency. It's what is done with the list that could cross the line from strategy to creepy or vindictive. What many citizens may not realize is that it does not take technical prowess to create such a list or to create a fairly thorough report for each person on the list. For starters, political donations are considered public record. Those public records are easy to view and read on many websites. You can go to the website of the Federal Election Commission and search by Candidate, Committee, Political Action groups, and more. One of the more popular sites is www.OpenSecrets.org. Take a moment and look up your favorite politicians or political group and you can see who their major contributors are. So much for keeping your political affiliations at your family's kitchen table!
In the age of "big data" and lightening speed search engines, what can one do with a "friends" or "enemies" list? You can create a detailed dossier on your friends, enemies, and even frenemies (friendly enemies that you keep close). It's free, does not require a technical degree, and you can build an impressive report often in less time than you could write a high school term paper. Anyone from your employer, a campaign manager, government organization, or law enforcement official has many tools at their disposal. For starters, court records are often just a few clicks away so property records, divorce proceedings, bankruptcy information might be readily available or just a short request form away from someone accessing this information. Services such as PACER are open to the public and allow easy access to electronic court records. Your tweets, Facebook posts, your website "likes", Google+ posts and more are all available through popular search engines. If law enforcement has a reason to request your data, internet services and cellular providers will hand it over. Twitter reached an agreement with the Library of Congress and the National Archives to turn over all public tweets for eternal posterity. Whether you are an active internet user or not, your life has been digitally recorded in high-def and in the age of "big data" your views, connections, affiliations, triumphs, and mistakes are all exposed. In the words of Saturday Night Live's Church Lady, Enid Strict, "Well, isn't that Special? How convenient!"
As we continue to trip and stumble our way through the digital age, websites with an "enemies list" or Facebook apps like "EnemyGraph" are a wake up call. What makes this a great country is that we can all disagree and still be citizens of the United States. We have a right to have our voices heard. The news headlines should be a wake up call and a reminder that in the zeal to have your view heard or the sense of urgency to create transparency of government, there is a risk that it can too easily morph into personal attacks on citizens that are exercising their constitutional rights.
Now about that government transparency, as a citizen, did you know that you have the right to request information about your government? It is called the Freedom of Information Act. If you have the time, it is also worth the effort to read transcripts or watch testimony on the Hill. You can find live video streams by Committee, search the Congressional Record, review active legislation in the Senate, and more. It's all there at your fingertips!
Theresa Payton is the co-author of the new book, "Protecting Your Internet Identity: Are You Naked Online?"