Friday, December 26, 2008

Transparency vs. Privacy

At the end of October, John Dickerson and Chris Wilson, in the online magazine Slate, called for Barack Obama to disclose the names of all of the small (less than $200) donors to his campaign. They then went through an argument that simply served to display their ignorance of dealing with large databases, making simplistic calculations based on Excel spreadsheets that convince only themselves. Never once do they consider the issue of privacy. Other such calls abounded in the weeks before the election (Tom Fitton, President, Judicial Watch, Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager)

At least weekly we are reminded, through the media, of the dangers inherent in organizations and businesses being lax in their protection of their large databases containing personal information. Apparently these reporters have not read those reports. I have no doubt that there are errors in that database. I do doubt that hidden in that database are large contributors who have spent many hours online entering hundreds of small contributions in an effort to influence the candidate. In fact, I am sure that my multiple small contributions appear there with and without my middle initial, and possibly with other small variants (had I decided yet that I was really and truly retired?) that would allow them to be listed individually instead of agglomerated into a single larger contribution.

What would such a release of the information in that database accomplish? In fact, what is the reason for such transparency? None of the donors on this list would, by any conceivable imagination, gain special access to Obama by making such a contribution. However, the release of such information would certainly be a breach of their privacy. In fact, each time I make a political contribution and must complete the requisite form, I hesitate, balancing my privacy rights against the good I hope to accomplish in making the donation. Forcing such information to be made publicly available could easily be a hindrance to the kind of wide spread involvement in the political process that was widely hailed as a great step forward during this election.

Unlike the typical recent media behavior of speculating without the need to provide any evidence at all, I will offer evidence, beyond my own personal behavior, in this regard. During the months before the election, the website fivethirtyeight.com, in addition to the reporting and agglomerating of polls, ran a road log, On the Road, by a reporter, Sean Quinn, and a photographer, Brett Marty. They interviewed people visiting the candidates offices and at rallys and volunteers in those offices. Among the reports they posted and the comments posted in response to their posts were wives who didn't want their husbands to know that they were volunteering for Barack Obama, people who didn't want their neighbors to know who they were voting for, and others who were concerned that those in their office might find out about their voting preferences. Releasing the full database of donors to Obama's campaign would certainly deny these people their right to privacy. The cherished American curtain on the voting booth would then become fully transparent. It is clear to me that the balance here requires that this database not be publicly released. There is little to gain and much to lose.

Transparency seems to be a new mantra for the media; anything they want to know should be available to them without question. This apparently means the inner documents of a criminal investigation as well. If they don't get them, they feel free to write long pieces that contain absolutely nothing but speculation and have sensational headlines that hardly relate to the story but will give the reporter more hits, presumably to add to his resume. The media apparently now think that their job is "to hold Obama (and other public officials) accountable." I would like them to consider a rephrasing of that concept. Their job is to find the truth. By doing so, they will hold everyone accountable.

1 comment:

  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


    Ruth

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    ReplyDelete

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