The Agenda

Using Counter-Surveillance to Keep Government Honest

Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic has an article on CopRecorder and OpenWatch, technological tools designed to allow people to discretely record their interactions with others, including public officials. Madrigal is optimistic about their prospects for aiding investigative journalism:

To me, something like OpenWatch could help solve a major problem for investigative reporting in an age when newsrooms are shrinking. We’ve still got plenty of people who can bulldog an issue once it’s been flagged, but there are fewer and fewer reporters with deep sourcing in a community, fewer and fewer reporters who have the time to look into a bunch of different things knowing that only one out of a hundred might turn into a big investigation. Perhaps providing better conduits for citizens to flag their own problems can drive down the cost of hard-hitting journalism and be part of the solution for keeping governments honest.

The founder of OpenWatch, Rich Jones, was inspired by a desire to collect more hard data on how government interacts with citizens on a day-to-day basis:

Jones built it for some friends who’d gotten into some trouble with the law and who could have been aided by a recording of their interaction with law enforcement. But Jones’ worldview began to seep into the project. Informed by Julian Assange’s conception of “scientific journalism,” Jones wanted to start collecting datapoints at the interface of citizens and authority figures.

“It’s a new kind of journalism. When people think citizen media, right now they think amateur journalism … I don’t think that’s revolutionary,” Jones told me. “I don’t think that’s what the ’90s cyberutopianists were dreaming of. I think the real value of citizen media will be collecting data.”

I’m not a fan of Assange, who strikes me as a deranged megalomaniac, but his notoriety has served to inject certain important critiques of state power into the public conversation. WikiLeaks has evolved into one controlling, decidedly un-transparent man’s bid for attention. Fortunately, organizations like OpenLeaks are continuing to do the vitally important work of promoting transparency.

But that’s an aside. Jones is doing important work, and I’m eager to see what becomes of OpenWatch. Over time, I’d like to see this form of counter-surveillance used to monitor other abuses of government power

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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