Government’s Data Glut

Personal_Computer_Pentium_I_586Government is increasingly automating its services.  From Medicaid coverage to building permits, machines help determine individuals’ ability to take advantage of important governmental benefits and services.  Agencies collect huge amounts of data in the process.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently remarked that the real payoff of such automation is “actually us[ing] the data.”  With that mission in mind, agencies emphasize the importance of linking government databases to take full advantage of tools that mine data for insights.  In the effort to make its city “smarter,” Dubuque, Iowa is working on a project that will use sensors, software, and networked computing to give its government and individuals the digital tools to measure, monitor, and alter the way that they use water, electricity, and transportation.

To be sure, computer algorithms can analyze linked databases to identify fraud and waste, as well as simply help government make better decisions and policy.  But one hopes that government is not following the “adopt first-think later” model (as with e-voting machine purchases) when it comes to privacy, security, and auditability of these linked systems.  To what extent are vendors accounting for these concerns?  As my work on Technological Due Process and Open Code Governance explores, government’s automated systems overwhelmingly fail to incorporate audit trails that would reveal where information comes from and who has been using it.  We see this problem at the state level, where agencies often collect information free of intrusive regulation such as the Privacy Act of 1974 and perhaps even if they did would contend that the merging of data to allow intra-agency access would constitute a “routine use.”  No matter, managing this data glut in an accountable and privacy-protective manner is crucial as we move forward.

On a related note, Ken Bamberger’s Technologies of Compliance: Risk and Regulation in a Digital Age does a superb job exploring another side to the automated systems story.  His piece addresses firms’ automation of their compliance with laws mandating risk management.  Click here to read the abstract.  A must read.

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