…while some carriers have decided to press on with developing their data business since former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures, others have started pitching themselves as their customers’ best allies in seeking to hide from any prying eyes. Verizon’s Precision Marketing Insights product, which offers businesses statistics about mobile users in a given area, was in commercial trials with sports teams and billboard owners when the Snowden allegations hit. After fresh debate by top management and the board on whether selling even anonymous data on customers was a good move, the company decided to go ahead with it, said Colson Hillier, a Verizon executive. “Privacy is a hot button issue right now, but we think we can take a leadership stance,” Hillier said. “It’s not a reputational risk if you do it right and are pro-active in communication with consumers and policy makers.” Other telecom companies took the opposite tack, casting themselves as better guardians of customer data than internet companies like Google, which use it to target advertising. Deutsche Telekom, for example, last year launched an encrypted “Email made in Germany” service and a secure communications link for small businesses to ward off hackers or spooks. “Protection of the private sphere is a valuable commodity,” its CEO said.
The results reveal just how rich a seam of information your metadata is. The participants gave up their phone’s metadata via a special app, along with publicly available information from their Facebook profile. Then, the researchers set to work, digging through it all to find out as much as they could.
So, one participant in the study “communicated with multiple local neurology groups, a specialty pharmacy, a rare condition management service, and a hotline for a pharmaceutical used solely to treat relapsing multiple sclerosis”; another “had a long, early morning call with her sister. Two days later, she placed a series of calls to the local Planned Parenthood location. She placed brief additional calls two weeks later, and made a final call a month after.”
If it’s near impossible for sources to contact journalists securely because of mass surveillance – while already in a climate where whistleblowers are likely to be aggressively hunted down – we may see this flow of information between source and journalist run dry. Scandals like those that have emerged over the past year will never come to light, and we’ll be kept in the dark as to what our governments are actually up to, with no opportunity to question or challenge their actions. This affects everyone, including those comfortable with mass surveillance.
[Update on 22 March, 2011: Professor George Brock of City University is advocating the systematic use of footnotes by journalists to acknowledge primary source material.]
[Update on 24 Feb, 2011: in a far more elegant and effective way than I outline below, the Media Standards Trust has released a tool that exposes Churnalism, journalism recycled, or indeed copy-pasted wholesale, from press releases… More from the Guardian.]
A few minutes down the road from me, The Guardian has this weekend been hosting a hack SxSW event – which helped precipitate (in the chemistry sense) an idea for me that has been swirling for a long time, but which has been particularly swirly since long discussions at Newsfoo in December. I’m sure others are already thinking about or working on similar ideas – although my impression at Newsfoo was that perhaps not. Either way, I offer it up here, warts and all, in case it’s got some merit, and might be of some help.
A caveat: I’m not a coder or a technologist, so please forgive any tech barbarisms [update: e.g. “Metadata? Are you crazy? We can do this with basic tagging…” or “This is classic sledgehammer/nut, hammer/nail territory…” or “Uh-oh – here comes the rabbit-hole…”.] I work in sectors (journalism, media, development, human rights), however, that are profoundly affected by the work that many technologists are doing, and that are facing challenges in how to make manifest the provenance, authenticity, accuracy, diversity and representativeness of the information they provide.
Five things in particular have prompted me to thrash this post out now, starting at half-six on a Sunday morning, with regular interruptions from the kids…:
– discussions at Newsfoo about how to make manifest a layer of trust and transparency in news content – distinct from a reader’s habituated trust in a certain journalist or publication
– re-reading my friend Ethan Zuckerman’s thinking on media attention, xenophilia, homophily and other obstacles to diversity of news coverage – and wondering if the problem is less that the international media’s resources and attention are unevenly apportioned, and more that local media, closer to the story, are less able to compete, to project themselves or their analysis internationally
– by extension, a bit of media development dogfooding – what’s good enough to suggest to journalists and media outlets in the developing world should be good enough for any media anywhere
– watching immense surges of communication about the #egypt #jan25 #sidibouzid #wikileaks and other unfolding crises through the Twitterverse and beyond (including the Guardian’s Ian Prior incident described here)
– Mozilla’s Privacy Icons project – an attempt to represent at a glance how a web user’s data will be held and used by a service or website (more here and here)
There are some admirable efforts to crack the nut of information overload, especially with the huge increase in individual media production (tweets, facebook updates, and so on). Projects like SwiftRiver take a technological approach to crunching information, including news sources, and rendering it (ideally) both more contextualised, and more filterable, and therefore more useful and less overwhelming. Google News has started asking news orgs to tag their stories to distinguish between original and syndicated content. Some, like Neography, are basically hieroglyphics for the news. It’s a start, but still a fairly modest one.
None of this offers readers enough fine-grained control, nor does it present a new, different prism through which to understand news events, and it’s not designed in a way that communicates the intention of journalism. Google for one is trying to get there, but its solutions are still reliant to some degree on search (and search itself is an increasingly personalised rather than shared experience). This doesn’t yet truly level the playing field for, say, local media in the developing world, or journalists writing in their native language rather than in a global language. [A propos of which, there is still no Global Voices Online equivalent that, instead of tracking and curating blogs about or from every country in the world, systematically tracks and surfaces stories from local and national media around the world.] High-quality curation in more established international media as well as on many blogs, is helping diversify access to a wider range of original sources somewhat, but again it is constrained by individual capacity, networks, inclination.
I believe we need something extra, a reasonably independent searchable layer, that helps extract and highlight some of the things that we both value and seek to avoid in reading journalism – both ends of which may help spark deeper changes in the practice or perspective of journalism as it continues to evolve.
So, rather than having users rely on a combination of searches, aggregators, curators, recommendations, affinities, semantic crunchers and luck to find what they need, what if a broad swath(e) of news organisations, and other organisations involved in the business of journalism, developed a simple (perhaps even visual) system that, before they read an article:
– addresses both the problems of information overload and consumer choice
– surfaces some of the markers that might distinguish high-quality journalism
– provides readers with clear provenance of information
– and in doing so meets head-on the issues of transparency and trust that we discussed at Newsfoo?