Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Should government Web sites move from a need-to-know posture on sharing visitors' data to a need-to-share posture?

I've written before that we don't pay enough attention to privacy.

There's a lot of information about us all over the digital landscape, and powerful new aggregators are doing a brisk business by bringing all of that information together.  Further, market research firms are using that data to figure out whether we want to buy Colgate or Tom's of Maine.

Even if we don't share our information with any sites, simply our Web history can be used to analyze us and make some predictions.  Gender being onePolitics, another.  Take a look at, a site that breaks down other sites' web traffic by gender, income, geography, and other attributes.

Our Web history says so much about us that The Onion wrote a feature-length article about it: "Web-Browser History A Chronicle Of Couple's Unspoken Desires"

But if we pay too little attention to how the private sector (with our help) turns our discarded data into profit, we pay too much attention to how the government could, possibly, maybe, perhaps abuse data that it is currently prohibited from collecting.  And even as we undervalue the data businesses collect about us--again, both with our consent and at times without it--we undervalue the full range of services that government could provide if it moved from a "need-to-know" stance to "need-to-share."

Perhaps the best case-in-point is the Social Security Administration.  They fully comply with the new directives published by OMB.  On their Privacy Policy page, under "sharing your information", the first sentence reads "We may share the information you provide with our employees or representatives with a “need-to-know,” other Federal agencies (for example, Railroad Retirement Board, or the Department of Veterans Affairs), or other named representatives as needed to expeditiously process your request or transaction." (emphasis mine.)

But let's pause a moment to ask: who really understands all of the benefits they're entitled to when they first start to investigate government Web sites?  Imagine if the same algorithms that look at your GMail to pick which ads you should see also looked at your history on government sites to notify you which services you need?

We are clamoring for government to open up its data; shouldn't we be willing to be a little more open about our own?