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"The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest," according to the architect of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.
Given that sentiment, it's tempting to think Jefferson would have approved of a new Web-based repository intended to close what the site's developers describe as an ever-widening gap between citizens' ability to monitor the government and the government's ability to monitor its citizens.
Researchers at the MIT Media Lab unveiled the Government Information Awareness, or GIA, website Friday. Using applications developed at the Media Lab, GIA collects and collates information about government programs, plans and politicians from the general public and numerous online sources. Currently the database contains information on more than 3,000 public figures.
The premise of GIA is that if the government has a right to know personal details about citizens, then citizens have a right to similar information about the government.
GIA was inspired by the federal government's Terrorist Information Awareness, or TIA, program. Government officials have said that TIA's sole purpose is to identify potential terrorists by comparing information in a broad range of databases that might point to patterns indicative of terrorist activity.
But many privacy advocates see TIA as an overly intrusive effort to monitor Americans' lives in minute detail, from credit card purchases to travel plans.
"Our goal is develop a technology which empowers citizens to form their own intelligence agency; to gather, sort and act on information they gather about the government," said MIT graduate student Ryan McKinley, who developed GIA under the direction of Christopher Csikszentmih?lyi, an assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab's Computing Culture group.
"Only by employing such technologies can we hope to have a government by the people and for the people," McKinley said.
GIA allows people to explore data, track events, find patterns and build profiles related to specific government officials or political issues. Information about campaign finance, corporate ties and even religion and schooling can be accessed easily. Real-time alerts can be generated when news of interest is breaking.
"History shows that when information is concentrated in the hands of an elite, democracy suffers," said Csikszentmih?lyi. "The writers of the Constitution told us that if people mean to be their own governors, they must arm themselves with information. This project brings that American spirit of self-governance into the era of networked information technology."
GIA site users can submit information about public figures and government programs anonymously. In an attempt to ensure the accuracy of submitted data, the system automatically contacts the appropriate government officials and offers them an opportunity to confirm or deny submitted data.
But like an FBI file, information is not purged if the subject denies its veracity; the denial is simply added to the file. McKinley wryly added that those government officials who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear from GIA.
McKinley enthusiastically encourages participation by "programmers, political activists from all denominations, lawyers and anyone else who is interested in supporting GIA."
"Computers alone cannot monitor the government," said McKinley. "While we can aggregate data that already exists, a lot of valuable information is not stored in existing databases, but rather in the collective knowledge of the American citizenry. GIA introduces a way to consolidate and share this knowledge."
"The MIT program is a wonderful idea: sunshine disinfects," said political activist Bill Scannell, who has recently been engaged in a battle against the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, or CAPPS II, which would require background checks on all airline passengers when they book an airline ticket. These background checks would review credit reports, banking and criminal records.
"As their employers, we American citizens have more of a right to know about government workers living at public expense than they have to know about us," Scannell said.
GIA looks like a standard website, but it is actually a suite of information technologies that actively peruse data, accept contributions and post alerts about government.
"We've had to solve the problem of how to build a useful, egalitarian and massively scaleable database of sensitive information collected from diverse and unknown sources," said McKinley.
GIA is "open source" -- the databases it utilizes are openly presented for public perusal and use elsewhere.
"If we are to maintain a democracy, it's crucial to ensure accountability," said Csikszentmih?lyi. "At least as much effort should be spent developing technologies that allows citizens to track their government as for government to monitor civilians."
-------------------- The above is an extract from my fictional novel, "The random postings of Edame".
In the beginning was the word. And man could not handle the word, and the hearing of the word, and he asked God to take away his ears so that he might live in peace without having to hear words which might upset his equinamity or corrupt the unblemished purity of his conscience.
And God, hearing this desperate plea from His creation, wrinkled His mighty brow for a moment and then leaned down toward man, beckoning that he should come close so as to hear all that was about to be revealed to him.
"Fuck you," He whispered, and frowned upon the pathetic supplicant before retreating to His heavens.
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