Transparency for the state, privacy for the rest of us

By Andrew Hyder

Berlin’s open data portal does not collect IP addresses 1. That is quite a statement. The City is offering up all the data it has in the best way it knows how and refuses to track anyone making copies of it. This portal has one goal: show residents the data they paid for with their taxes and ask for nothing in return.

Sure, it has minimal logs, analytics and everything needed to help government departments make better decisions based on metrics. But it does not track user actions in a way that can be tied to an individual. At its core, Berlin has created a friendly municipal data portal. Thanks, friend.

Think about how that contrasts with every other service on the internet. All these young sites are hungry for your data. They have no history themselves, but will give anything for your browser history, your location history, your shopping history, even your very cultural history. Give it all, please. Give it now.

These services offer incredible innovations if you give them access, but no promises about what they will do with their newfound treasure. Remember all the services you sprayed data at before Facebook and Google? Probably not. But what happened to that personal data about us? Who bought it, found it or leaked it? And what will happen to everything the current companies know about us?

The Internet is amazing, but it is also new. We are just now starting to understand how an always-connected community will affect our society and the adjustments those effects may force us to make.

One of those adjustments is about memory. It took us a while to notice it, but the Internet does not forget. Everything we do, everywhere we go and everything we say are online forever. Our understanding of memory has changed. What other adjustments will we be forced to make?

There are some obvious problems with this new data-hungry economy: the potential for personal data abuse, manipulation, oppression, greed and exploitation. I am sure we will invent some horrible new ways to use personal data against each other in the future, too.

Revelations about eroding privacy come every day. Facebook experiments on our emotions. Google probes our home and business Wi-Fi networks with an army of Street View coupes. Scarier still, government agencies are in on the game. Snowden. Assange. Manning. They have warned us of government spying, and we are starting to react 2.

What can we do to protect ourselves against private companies?

The one organization that can help us might seem to be a strange partner: governments! Think about it though: the Internet does not forget, and companies are ephemeral. Governments can last long enough to make long-view decisions for our benefit.

For protection against abuse of personal data, we should enact new government regulation. Climate change regulation is the best current example. Tough, contentious rules limit well-funded companies. While governments can treat people horribly, they also have the power to prevent people from treating each other horribly. Even though some branches of government are actively abusing our personal data, governments can still pass regulations limiting the collection, retention and use of personal data by private companies. Specific laws should be passed limiting the collection of personal data without our consent: Laws to limit the amount of time for which companies can keep our data and to give our data an expiration date so that we get the immediate benefits and innovations but will not have to fear unknown future consequences. We are starting to see the darker side of an Internet with infinite memory. Precaution is needed from here on.

Berlin understands that. They are on board to fight for more transparency and less tracking; more consensus and less concealment. Transparency for the state, and privacy for the rest of us.


  1. See for more information.

  2. See for more information.


Andrew HyderAndrew Hyder is a civic hacker at Code for America. He’s never been published before so this is all very exciting. / @hackyourcity