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The Guns and Gun Data Debate, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the End of Privacy

BY Nick Judd | Friday, January 11 2013

Public equals online.

That mantra has been repeated often around here. Public equals online. Make government documents into computer files that programmers can easily parse and synthesize. Take information about government, or held by government, and turn it over so that the people of the Internet can use it to explain the world to the rest of us. In November 2010, when the Sunlight Foundation* decided to make a go at inserting that credo into the midterm elections, this was an uncontroversial request to make: Public should equal online. If it's already "public record," put it on the Internet. What's the difference?

As soon as 2013 began, the Lower Hudson Journal-News offered a reminder. While "public equals online" is uncomplicated where "public record" is concerned, the inverse is also true. Online equals public. That can be more complex. Online does not mean "public" as in "public record," as in it's-in-a-cabinet-somewhere, fill-out-this-form-and-the-city-clerk-will-get-back-to-you-next-year-maybe public. Online public means "I can find it on Google" public. When it comes to budget data, what Congress is doing or who's pumping money into elections, that's an automatic improvement. But when the Journal-News posted online a map with the names and addresses of all gun owners in Westchester County, N.Y., public-record public became, suddenly and without warning, online public. This was a concern because the records were not about public officials, but private citizens. If people like that even exist anymore.

There are other names for the phenomenon that happened to Westchester gun owners: "Why does my name and date of birth appear on this blog" public. "You've been running an online forum that posts sexualized images of minors and revealing your identity can help my career" public.

Any journalist worth a moment of your time should be able to make a rousing defense for the value of increased access to public records. In the case of gun data specifically, Reuters' Jack Shafer defends the naked data dump as something of inherent news value. At a time when there is phenomenal fear of guns in the wrong hands, knowing how near you are to guns and whose hands are holding them is suddenly worth the price of a newspaper subscription. What's more, Shafer rightly observes, journalists using public records are not really doing anything that any private citizen couldn't also do. The idea is that reporters and editors are paid to do things like haggle over databases and do data analysis so that private citizens don't have to. This valuable information is brought to all of you because some of you click ads or buy newspapers. It's division of labor, capitalism's great gift to the world!

"No law prevents individuals from making the same pistol permit request from the counties and posting their own maps if Gannett and the Journal News surrender and delete theirs," Shafer wrote. "I’d wager that somebody has already scraped the data from the Journal News site and will repost it if the paper goes wobbly."

That becomes more true by the day. People of the Internet are becoming better and better at uncovering public information online, and information that is online and as a result accidentally public. The done thing is to aggregate that into as complete — and probably embarrassing — a profile of the subject as possible. It's called "doxing," and the ethics of doxing by people on the Internet are debated as hotly as journalists debate the ethics of naming private individuals based on public records. Last year Adrian Chen unearthed that publisher of borderline kiddie porn, Reddit user Violentacrez, as a 49-year-old computer programmer from Texas. When he did, people of the Internet did not understand his work as investigative journalism. No, Violentacrez — Michael Brutsch — had been doxed.

By releasing names and addresses of Westchester gun owners, the Journal-News made it easier for people on the Internet to dox them, too. It seems that's how gun-ownership advocates saw the matter as well: Some took revenge by doxing Journal-News employees.

As people on the Internet become more like journalists, they have adopted some of journalism's most visible language and practices. Regular people fill their Twitter feeds with "BREAKING" and "CONFIRMED." They cite their "sources" and sometimes they even wait for three of them to say the same thing before they say "CONFIRMED." Rather than lead by example, the Journal-News seems to have done something else that's common on the Internet: The newspaper stooped to the level of its competition.

When people who claim affiliation with the Internet collective Anonymous dox people, they generally explain that it was not only fun but that the target had it coming — high schoolers alleged to have sexually abused an unconscious girl, for example. Follow this rule and the Journal-News' map doesn't make much sense, but the revenge-doxing does. The Journal-News could have aggregated gun ownership data to show its readers how many people in each census block had a gun license rather than naming each individual. What did these gun owners do besides buy a gun? How is it at all fair to assume that someone with a concealed carry permit does not also hold a reasonable concern for their safety? How do we know the public interest — there's that tricky word again — outweighs that private individual's interest in remaining functionally anonymous? Those questions weren't satisfactorily answered. In contrast, all the Journal-News' detractors had to do was declare the newspaper convicted in a court of Internet public opinion. For compromising the privacy of others without justification, the sentence was an end to one's own privacy. An address for an address.

Until recently the average Internet user never really had to care about the responsibility that comes with the power of their connection to the global network. The scariest realization to come from the entire gun-data debacle is that in the era of doxing (and DDoS), this is no longer the case. There is quite a lot that is public and online. Real estate records, lobbyist databases, reverse-address lookup, certain public court records, online forum usernames and old blog posts — at a certain point it's no longer particularly difficult to build a comprehensive profile of someone, just time-consuming. The ranks of people capable of a thorough dox are growing as public comes to equal online, and the list of targets is growing as our increasingly digital lives leave more and more data exhaust behind.

Now it's not just the ethics of journalists that are concerning to someone who is suddenly of public interest. In fact, this person must hope that anyone with an Internet connection and decent Google-fu also has a well calibrated moral compass. So the entire dust-up over Westchester County gun ownership data is less worrisome as an ethical dilemma for journalists as it is a dubious example to set for the rest of the document-sleuthing Internet. Assume there are plenty of compromising things out there on the Internet about most people. When anyone can do what a reporter can do, where digging documents is concerned, journalists really should not be making the case that anything and any individual of even passing public interest — or a prurient interest — is fair game for the spotlight. As some of the few people with the longest experience making hard decisions about how to deal with personally identifiable information, they should be careful about what they decide to publish and thorough and open about why.

Public records are public for a reason. There are certain aspects of civic business, like picking elected officials or taking responsibility for something built from scratch to be a deadly weapon, that really ought to be conducted in the open. At the same time, when those public records laws were written, public meant something else. It meant any one person could show up at a city clerk's office to review a record, or could make a copy to share with a few people at once. At most, a journalist — whose career hinges on how she handles sensitive information — could cite that record in a story, after dealing with her editors. That's a far cry from an era where much information on the Internet is just a few keystrokes away.

In many ways, reality has far outpaced some questions of ethics. Today, it only takes a few moments for anyone to download a file with the name and address of every voter in the state of Ohio — provided they're willing to promise, by checking a box, not to misuse that information. Less legal but probably no less available is a mountain of user data obtained from a breach of Sony's PlayStation Network in May 2011. The question of what to do with that information is one of ethics. The question of whether it should be available on the Internet has been settled for years. Suggesting otherwise has less to do with morality and more to do with cognitive dissonance.

So the credo holds: Public does equal online.

We just don't yet understand what that means.

* TechPresident publisher Andrew Rasiej and editorial director Micah Sifry are senior advisers to the Sunlight Foundation.