February 22, 2019

Government Data and the Invisible Hand

David Robinson, Harlan Yu, Bill Zeller, and I have a new paper about how to use infotech to make government more transparent. We make specific suggestions, some of them counter-intuitive, about how to make this happen. The final version of our paper will appear in the Fall issue of the Yale Journal of Law and Technology. The best way to summarize it is to quote the introduction:

If the next Presidential administration really wants to embrace the potential of Internet-enabled government transparency, it should follow a counter-intuitive but ultimately compelling strategy: reduce the federal role in presenting important government information to citizens. Today, government bodies consider their own websites to be a higher priority than technical infrastructures that open up their data for others to use. We argue that this understanding is a mistake. It would be preferable for government to understand providing reusable data, rather than providing websites, as the core of its online publishing responsibility.

In the current Presidential cycle, all three candidates have indicated that they think the federal government could make better use of the Internet. Barack Obama’s platform explicitly endorses “making government data available online in universally accessible formats.” Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, remarked that she wants to see much more government information online. John McCain, although expressing excitement about the Internet, has allowed that he would like to delegate the issue, possible to a vice-president.

But the situation to which these candidates are responding – the wide gap between the exciting uses of Internet technology by private parties, on the one hand, and the government’s lagging technical infrastructure on the other – is not new. The federal government has shown itself consistently unable to keep pace with the fast-evolving power of the Internet.

In order for public data to benefit from the same innovation and dynamism that characterize private parties’ use of the Internet, the federal government must reimagine its role as an information provider. Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, it should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that “exposes” the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to find and leverage public data. The best way to ensure that the government allows private parties to compete on equal terms in the provision of government data is to require that federal websites themselves use the same open systems for accessing the underlying data as they make available to the public at large.

Our approach follows the engineering principle of separating data from interaction, which is commonly used in constructing websites. Government must provide data, but we argue that websites that provide interactive access for the public can best be built by private parties. This approach is especially important given recent advances in interaction, which go far beyond merely offering data for viewing, to offer services such as advanced search, automated content analysis, cross-indexing with other data sources, and data visualization tools. These tools are promising but it is far from obvious how best to combine them to maximize the public value of government data. Given this uncertainty, the best policy is not to hope government will choose the one best way, but to rely on private parties with their vibrant marketplace of engineering ideas to discover what works.

To read more, see our preprint on SSRN.

Online Symposium: Voluntary Collective Licensing of Music

Today we’re kicking off an online symposium on voluntary collective licensing of music, over at the Center for InfoTech Policy site.

The symposium is motivated by recent movement in the music industry toward the possibility of licensing large music catalogs to consumers for a fixed monthly fee. For example, Warner Music, one of the major record companies, just hired Jim Griffin to explore such a system, in which Internet Service Providers would pay a per-user fee to record companies in exchange for allowing the ISPs’ customers to access music freely online. The industry had previously opposed collective licenses, making them politically non-viable, but the policy logjam may be about to break, making this a perfect time to discuss the pros and cons of various policy options.

It’s an issue that evokes strong feelings – just look at the comments on David’s recent post.

We have a strong group of panelists:

  • Matt Earp is a graduate student in the i-school at UC Berkeley, studying the design and implementation of voluntary collective licensing systems.
  • Ari Feldman is a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at Princeton, studying computer security and information policy.
  • Ed Felten is a Professor of Computer Science and Public Affairs at Princeton.
  • Jon Healey is an editorial writer at the Los Angeles Times and writes the paper’s Bit Player blog, which focuses on how technology is changing the entertainment industry’s business models.
  • Samantha Murphy is an independent singer/songwriter and Founder of SMtvMusic.com.
  • David Robinson is Associate Director of the Center for InfoTech Policy at Princeton.
  • Fred von Lohmann is a Senior Staff Attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, specializing in intellectual property matters.
  • Harlan Yu is a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at Princeton, working at the intersection of computer science and public policy.

Check it out!

The Security Mindset and "Harmless Failures"

Bruce Schneier has an interesting new essay about how security people see the world. Here’s a sample:

Uncle Milton Industries has been selling ant farms to children since 1956. Some years ago, I remember opening one up with a friend. There were no actual ants included in the box. Instead, there was a card that you filled in with your address, and the company would mail you some ants. My friend expressed surprise that you could get ants sent to you in the mail.

I replied: “What’s really interesting is that these people will send a tube of live ants to anyone you tell them to.”

Security requires a particular mindset. Security professionals – at least the good ones – see the world differently. They can’t walk into a store without noticing how they might shoplift. They can’t use a computer without wondering about the security vulnerabilities. They can’t vote without trying to figure out how to vote twice. They just can’t help it.

This kind of thinking is not natural for most people. It’s not natural for engineers. Good engineering involves thinking about how things can be made to work; the security mindset involves thinking about how things can be made to fail. It involves thinking like an attacker, an adversary or a criminal. You don’t have to exploit the vulnerabilities you find, but if you don’t see the world that way, you’ll never notice most security problems.

I’ve often speculated about how much of this is innate, and how much is teachable. In general, I think it’s a particular way of looking at the world, and that it’s far easier to teach someone domain expertise – cryptography or software security or safecracking or document forgery – than it is to teach someone a security mindset.

The ant farm story illustrates another aspect of the security mindset. Your first reaction to the might have been, “So what? What’s so harmful about sending a package of ordinary ants to an unsuspecting person?” Even Bruce Schneier, who has the security mindset in spades, doesn’t point to any terrible consequence of misdirecting the tube of ants. (You might worry about the ants’ welfare, but in that case ant farms are already problematic.) If you have the security mindset, you’ll probably find the possibility of ant misdirection to be irritating; you’ll feel that something should have been done about it; and you’ll probably file it away in your mental attic, in case it becomes relevant later.

This interest in “harmless failures” – cases where an adversary can cause an anomalous but not directly harmful outcome – is another hallmark of the security mindset. Not all “harmless failures” lead to big trouble, but it’s surprising how often a clever adversary can pile up a stack of seemingly harmless failures into a dangerous tower of trouble. Harmless failures are bad hygiene. We try to stamp them out when we can.

To see why, consider the donotreply.com email story that hit the press recently. When companies send out commercial email (e.g., an airline notifying a passenger of a flight delay) and they don’t want the recipient to reply to the email, they often put in a bogus From address like A clever guy registered the domain donotreply.com, thereby receiving all email addressed to donotreply.com. This included “bounce” replies to misaddressed emails, some of which contained copies of the original email, with information such as bank account statements, site information about military bases in Iraq, and so on. Misdirected ants might not be too dangerous, but misdirected email can cause no end of trouble.

The people who put donotreply.com email addresses into their outgoing email must have known that they didn’t control the donotreply.com domain, so they must have thought of any reply messages directed there as harmless failures. Having gotten that far, there are two ways to avoid trouble. The first way is to think carefully about the traffic that might go to donotreply.com, and realize that some of it is actually dangerous. The second way is to think, “This looks like a harmless failure, but we should avoid it anyway. No good can come of this.” The first way protects you if you’re clever; the second way always protects you.

Which illustrates yet another part of the security mindset: Don’t rely too much on your own cleverness, because somebody out there is surely more clever and more motivated than you are.