Transparency requires technology

Nov 05, 2013

Government transparency is the piggy magnet on the moral refrigerator. The gadget hangs in our faces, poised to digitally oink when we try to open the fridge door to indulge.

We deploy a piggy magnet when we have a strong resolve to change our eating habits, hoping it can catch us when we’re at our weakest. Likewise, legislatures provide for routine government reports, a baseline that can reveal lapses by lawmakers or civil servants (it may be the investigative news media that oinks).

A piggy magnet is no physical restraint, just as no legislation can withstand a determined democracy. They’re powerful because they’re hair-trigger sensitive, palpably public, and we fully intend for them to indict us should we fail.

In both cases, shame is the threat they wield. Piggy magnets, and government reports, work better when they are loud enough for everyone to hear.

Computers, the only tools able to manipulate the exploding body of information we need to survive, can implement a data-based transparency piggy alarm. But, as universal machines, they’re infinitely malleable, unlike a simple ball bearing switch embedded in plastic and glued to a magnet. They’re vulnerable to clever humans experiencing moments of weakness.

Ironically, computer encryption will be the key to meaningful transparency.

Encryption hides information from prying eyes. If it’s inconvenient to make information physically inaccessible, we can make it look like uninteresting noise or worthless information and then keep it close by, even in public. The data can’t be understood—or altered—by anyone except to those that know the key.

Encryption has two purposes. The first is obvious: to keep valuable information secret. When you bank online, your computer and the bank’s systems agree on a method to obscure your financial information as they exchange it. Ideally, it’s so difficult for eavesdroppers to guess or intuit the code that it isn’t worth it to bother.

The less obvious use of encryption is to keep valuable information public. One nominal secret can prevent many others.

Computers are excellent at making a hash of things: their lightning math skills make it possible to summarize the content of a document in a code-like “hash”. If one letter in the original document changes, the hash changes too. If the two don’t agree, the document was altered.

The way to keep public information transparent is to encrypt the hair-trigger hash, not the document. Digital signatures positively link the mathematical summary and the person who processed a document last. They can ultimately link the politicians responsible for the work.

It becomes so difficult to cover up evidence of misdeeds that it’s not worth it to try.

Government already expresses democratic resolve through a continuum of documents, from constitution to law to regulation to policy to the smallest computer script or departmental memo. That continuum gets broken frequently, but it is challenging to define and contain the damage “manually”.

The tools of automation, and a thorough chain of digital signatures, can mirror that continuum. In moments of strength we can craft systems that better resist alteration and suppression of data, and enhance transparency, to lean on when we’re weak.

Then, when a department delays a Freedom of Information response, when a minister crafts an evasive answer, when an office “loses” emails, computer piggy magnets can instantly, precisely, and publicly flag any discrepancies. There’s no stronger disincentive against wrongdoing.

We know how to practice community self control through transparency. Ongoing success will require a technological implementation. For all our good intentions, we still need to slap an organizational piggy magnet on the fridge to keep us honest.

Kirk Zurell investigates digital technology with the University of Waterloo’s REAP lab (http://reapwaterloo.ca), and is an alumni of Leadership Waterloo Region and the Waterloo Voter Support Committee. His opinions are his own, and he welcomes comments at kirk@zurell.name.