Open Data for Evil

For obvious reasons, people attending Open Data Camp 4 in Cardiff tend to think that creating, publishing, and analysing data is a good thing. But there is no doubt that data can be gathered, accessed, released and used for bad purposes.


As the leader of the Data for Evil session, Esko Reinikainen pointed out: “When the internet first came along, people were going: ‘Way hey, this is going to be great, everything is going to be open’ but even then, and other people were saying: ‘Yes, but there are dictatorships where I live…’

“Since then, we have seen things like America where apparently data has been used to interfere with the electoral system, and there are other bad uses of technology tools, like botnets.”

Even so, the issue is rarely clear cut. Both sides of the the debate in America use statistics. So the session was asked to play a game. As Esko explained: “The game is can you think of something really nasty that could be done with data for technical purposes? And then say why that might be ok?”

Team Sith: let me advance my policies with partial data

Session participants were asked to join a red or a blue – or Sith or Jedi Master – team to put up proposals and respond to them. So, first proposal: “From Trump’s America. There is a proposals for the publication of crimes committed by foreigners… “ Leader: “Yes, and there are suggestions post-Brexit that in this country firms should publish lists of foreign workers.”

Why should this happen? Sith argument: “This means I can track my policies by making sure that I only monitor those people I want to hit. So if I want to clamp down on foreigners I only publish data about things they do that are bad.”

A Jedi Master, asked to respond, made substantially the same point (with a different end in view): “I think the danger for society is when government cherry picks data, and government is already good at that, so if you look for a problem you will usually find it. You use it to publish data that is for ideological means.”

Still, another Jedi Master argued that more data might still be used for better purposes. ” I think what we need to do is to get the media more involved in looking at data. We also need to raise the standard of education, so there is more questioning of data, because people have their trusted sources, but sometimes they put their trust in the wrong place.”

This led to a further debate about whether the consumers of media actually cared about biased or false news; and how societies could be “inoculated” to detect bias and not give into apathy. Overall, raising standards of data education were seen as the best route to making sure that even data that was released for evil purposes did not end up have evil consequences.

Black hack, white hack

The next issue was hacking: which team-Sith argued was a threat to people’s privacy, but team-Jedi Master argued could be used for good, for instance to expose bad corporate behaviour.

Again, participants in the session argued the best way to make sure hacks couldn’t be used to inflict evil on their subjects was to educate people about the kind of risks they might be running, and the kind of trade-offs involved in handing over data and getting services in return. A Polish participant noted that in her country there had been court cases over whether the consent required to use some digital services really constituted ‘meaningful’ consent.

Participants also argued there was a particular need to educate people about the subtle ways in which they could be pressured into handing over more information than they meant to. This might include the subtle pressure on young people to put potentially damaging information onto Facebook, but also the societal pressure on adults to take out pay day loans or mortgages that they couldn’t afford.

Devils and algorithmic angels

Another example. A session participant said: “When I was investigating revenge porn, I came across a guy who had an idea that was so evil – before he was sent to prison – that he wanted to map onto geolocation information that he had information like names, and addresses, so people could go around and take pictures of people subject to revenge porn and so on. It just shows how really commonly available technologies can be used for very bad things.”

In response, a Jedi Master argued, again, that education was the answer. But technology might be needed to help. “So, I have a friend who has the idea of an algorithmic angel. So perhaps you are having fun with your boyfriend, and the idea of cameras comes up, then your algorithmic angel might say ‘here’s a few things to think about.’”

However, participants worried that this put the onus on the potential victim to take action, when solutions, including criminal solutions, should be focused on the perpetrator. They also worried that a service like an algorithmic angel might also be used for evil; for example, to identify actions that somebody had taken that could be turned against them. When it comes to data, it seems, good and evil are flip sides of the same coin.

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