Hack the Open Web, Not People’s Private Phones

Posted: July 22, 2011 in Data Journalism, My Data Journey, Open Data Movement
Tags: , ,

Within a very short period of time the term ‘journalist’ has changed in meaning drastically. Or did it even have a meaning to begin with? At a panel on the phone hacking scandal at the Centre for Investigative Journalism Summer School, Gavin Millar QC, said that a journalist is like a terrorist, we have no legally defined term for what they are!

The term ‘citizen journalist’ has grown from the web, from the free and global publishing platforms that are blogs, twitter and Facebook (and much more than those). The enabling ability of the web, its ability not just to spread information but to upload pictures, video and words; has shaken the traditional media model. The press journalist is no longer the gatekeeper of information. Just look at the Ryan Giggs superinjunction scandal.

So what do we mean when we say “The Press”? One of the consequences of the News of the World phone hacking scandal (which includes a lot more publications and not just News International publications) is that we are going to get a Press Inquiry. I say we, because we don’t know whether any regulatory outcome will include bloggers and twitterers i.e. us, the public who have a social space on the web and use it to communicate within the open public sphere.

Another word that is taking on a new and worrying meaning is the term ‘hacker’. Now a lot of weight and attention has been given to the citizen journalist/web journalist/blogger phenomenon. The circle within which my journalistic persona travels is that of hacks/hackers. I am part hacker. I am a data journalism advocate for a developer platform called ScraperWiki. And I am very concerned about how this tumultuous time in journalism history will define the word ‘hack’ and all its related synonyms.

Wikipedia has one definition of ‘Hacker’ as “a subculture of innovative uses and modifications of computer hardware, software, and modern culture”. I sit on the edge of this and want to look further into the nucleus as a possible future for online news and newsgathering. ScraperWiki is one of a core set of online tools being used by the Open Data community. The people who are part of this community, I flatter myself to be included, are ‘hackers’ by the best definition of the word. The web allows anyone to publish their code online so these people are citizen hackers.

They are the creators of such open civic websites as Schooloscope, Openly Local, Open Corporates, Who’s Lobbying, They Work For You, Fix My Street, Where Does My Money Go? and What Do They Know? This is information in the public interest. This is a new subset of journalism. This is the web enabling civic engagement with public information. This is hacking. But it is made more important by the fact that not everyone can do it, unlike citizen journalism.

I have a twitter account, @Scrape_No10, tweeting out meetings, gifts and hospitality at No.10. I made a twitter account, @OJCstatements, which tweets out statements by the Office for Judicial Complaints regarding judges who have been investigated over personal conduct included racism, sexism and abuse of their position. This information is on the web so it is in the public domain. But it is not in the public sphere because the public don’t check the multitude websites that may have information in the public interest. So I have put it on the platform where it could be of most use to the public.

In that sense, I feel journalists need to be ‘hackers’; they need to hack. Information in the public interest is not often available to the public. More and more government data is being put on the web in the form of PDFs and CSVs. Now, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the government doesn’t have to answer your request directly if the information is published online or will be published online. That means that with more and more information being put in the form of spreadsheets or databases, the public are going to be pointed to a sea of columns and rows rather than given direct answers. So journalists need to get to grips with data to get the public their answers.

But as we know, any journalistic endeavour is open to abuse. So where do we draw the line? Even with citizen journalism, the Ryan Giggs ousting online, has blurred the boundary between the right to get private information out in the open and the right to privacy of the individual. Now deleting the voice messages of a missing girl is clearly overstepping the bounds in a horrendous way. The public will never forgive such behaviour but invading politicians’ privacy for the purpose of uncovering corruption often is.

The argument can be made that information on the web is public information and can be used freely in a journalistic endeavour. But that isn’t always the case. The British and Irish Legal Information Institute portal, BAILII, does not allow scraping. Learning to scrape is my journalistic endeavour at the moment. Scraping is the programming form that takes information from the web and pares it down into its raw programmatic ingredients. So it can be baked into something more digestible to the public.

Now I would love to the make the legal system more digestible but I can’t. It’s because BAILII have their own databases of information that they sell to private companies. And scraping can reform these. One of which is a database of court fines that they sell to a multitude of credit card companies. So we pay for the judicial system and if we’re fined by it they have the right to make money from the data to affect our credit rating. This makes the information they put online locked into the format they chose to put it in, a complicated and convoluted web portal.

But equally, what about unearthing a deleted tweet or matching social media accounts through email address which are not disclosed but which could be guessed at? Linking online personas that are set up to be separate? Not accessing their private emails, not getting past any firewall that requires a password, but using details behind the front end of the web to dig deeper into their online connections. The question is not where do we draw the boundary but can we. Or even, should we.

It’s not the technique that should be outlawed; it should be the endeavour. Please don’t let the News of the World define ‘hacking’. In the Shakespearean sense of “That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet”, we should define journalism not by a word but by what it smells like. Something stank about the first phone hacking enquiry in 2009. Nick Davies smelt it and followed his nose. And that’s the definition of journalism.

The above article, by me, appeared in an edited form on the openDemocracy website. They say: “openDemocracy publishes high quality news analysis, debates and blogs about the world and the way we govern ourselves. We are not about any one set of issues, but about principles and the arguments and debates about those principles. openDemocracy believes there is an urgent need for a global culture of views and argument that is: i) Serious, thoughtful and attractively written; ii) Accessible to all; iii) Open to ideas and submissions from anywhere, part of a global human conversation that is not distorted by parochial national interests; and iv) Original and creative, able to propose and debate solutions to the real problems that we all face.” For further reading re who holds court data you should read this article.

  1. Nicola Hughes says:

    Heather Brooke helps describe what a ‘hacker’ is in this article: “Inside the secret world of hackers”

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