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March 21, 2019

Filed under: journalism»ethics

Reporting through the Scramble Suit

A proposal for responsible and ethical publication of personally-identifiable information in data journalism

Thanks to Helga Salinas, Kazi Awal, and Audrey Carlsen for their feedback.

Introduction

Over the last decade, one of the goals of data journalism has been to increase accountability and transparency through the release of raw data. Admonitions of "show your work" have become common enough that academics judge our work by the datasets we link to. These goals were admirable, and (in the context of legitimizing data teams within legacy organizations) even necessary at the time. But in an age of 8chan, Gamergate, and the rise of violent white nationalism, it may be time to add nuance to our approach.

This document is concerned primarily with the publication of personal data (also known as personally-identifiable information, or PII). In other words, we're talking about names, addresses or contact info, lat/long coordinates and other geodata, ID numbers (including license plates or other government ID), and other data points that can be traced back to a single individual. Much of this is available already under the public record, but that's no excuse: as the NYT Editorial Board wrote in 2018, "just because information is public doesn't mean it has to be so easy for so many people to get." It is irresponsible to amplify information without thinking about what we're amplifying and why.

Moreover, this is not a theoretical discussion: many newsroom projects start with large-scale FOIA dumps or public databases, which may include exactly this personal data. There have been movements in recent years to monetize these databases--creating a queryable database of government salaries, for example, and offering it via a subscription. Even random public records requests may disclose personal data. Intentionally or not, we're swimming in this stuff, and have become jaded as to its prevalence. I simply ask: is it right for us to simply push it out, without re-examining the implications of doing so?

I would stress that I'm not the only person who has thought about these things, and there are a few signs that we as an industry are beginning to formalize our thought process in the same way that we have standards around traditional reporting:

  • The Markup's ethics policy contains guidelines on personal data, including a requirement to set an expiration date (after which point it is deleted).
  • Reveal's ethics guide doesn't contain specific data guidelines, but does call out the need to protect individual privacy: "Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone's privacy."
  • The New York Times ran a session at NICAR 2019 on "doxxing yourself," in part to raise awareness of how vulnerable reporters (and by extension, readers) may be to targeted harassment and tracking.
  • A 2016 SRCCON session on "You're The Reason My Name Is On Google: The Ethics Of Publishing Public Data" explored real-world lessons from the Texas Tribune's salary databases (transcript here).

Why the concern?

In her landmark 2015 book The Internet of Garbage, Sarah Jeong sets aside an entire chapter just for harassment. And with good reason: the Internet has enabled new innovations for old prejudices, including SWATting, doxing, and targeted threats at a new kind of scale. Writing about Gamergate, she notes that the action of its instigator, Eron Gjoni, "was both complicated and simple, old and new. He had managed to crowdsource domestic abuse."

I choose to talk about harassment here because I think it provides an easy touchstone for the potential dangers of publishing personal information. Since Latanya Sweeney's initial work on de-anonymizing data, an entire industry has grown up around taking disparate pieces of information, both public and private, and matching them against each other to create alarmingly-detailed profiles of individual people. It's the foundation of the business model for Facebook, as well as a broad swathe of other technology companies. This information includes your location over time. And it's available for purchase, relatively cheaply, by anyone who wants to target you or your family. Should we contribute, even in a minor way, to that ecosystem?

These may seem like distant or abstract risks, but that may be because for many of us, this harassment is more distant or abstract than it is for others. A survey of "news nerds" in 2017 found that more than half are male, and three-quarters are white (a demographic that includes myself). As a result of this background, many newsrooms have a serious blind spot when it comes to understanding how their work may be seen (or used against) underrepresented populations.

As numerous examples have shown, we are very bad as an industry at thinking about how our power to amplify and focus attention is used. Even if harassment is not the ultimate result, publishing personal data may be seen by our audience as creepy or intrusive. At a time when we are concerned with trust in media, and when that trust is under attack from the top levels of government, perhaps we should be more careful in what data we publish, and how.

Finally, I think it is useful to consider our twin relationship to power and shame. Although we don't often think of it this way, the latter is often a powerful tool in our investigative reporting. After all, as the fourth estate, we do not have the power to prosecute or create legislation. What we can do is highlight the contrast between the world as we want it to be and as it actually is, and that gulf is expressed through shame.

The difference between tabloid reporting and "legitimate"journalism is the direction that shame is directed. The latter targets its shame toward the powerful, while the former is as likely to shame the powerless. In terms of accountability, it orients our power against the system, not toward individual people. It's the difference between reporting on welfare recipients buying marijuana, as opposed to looking at how marijuana licensing perpetuates historical inequalities from the drug war.

Our audiences may not consciously understand the role that shame plays in our journalism, but they know it's a part of the work. They know we don't do investigations in order to hand out compliments and community service awards. When we choose to put the names of individuals next to our reporting, we may be doing it for a variety of good reasons (perhaps we worked hard for that data, or sued to get it) but we should be aware that it is often seen as an implication of guilt on the part of the people within.

Potential guidelines for public release of PII

I want to be very clear that I am only talking about the public release of data in this document. I am not arguing that we should not submit FOIA or public records requests for personal data, or that it can't be useful for reporting. I'm also not arguing that we should not distribute this data at all, in aggregated form, on request, or through inter-organizational channels. It is important for us to show our work, and to provide transparency. I'm simply arguing that we don't always need to release raw data containing personal information directly to the public.

In the spirit of Maciej Ceglowski's Haunted by Data, I'd like to propose we think of personal data in three escalating levels of caution:

Don't collect it!

When creating our own datasets, it may be best to avoid personal data in the first place. Remember, you don't have to think about the implications of the GDPR or data leaks if you never have that information. When designing forms for story call-outs, try to find ways to automatically aggregate or avoid collecting information that you're not going to use during reporting anyway.

Don't dump it!

If you have the raw data, don't just throw it out into the public eye because you can. In general, we don't work with raw data for reporting anyway: we work with aggregates or subsets, because that's where the best stories live. What's the difference in policy effects between population groups? What department has the widest salary range in a city government? Where did a disaster cause the most damage? Releasing data in an aggregate form still allows end-users to check your work or perform follow-ups. And you can make the full dataset available if people reach out to you specifically over e-mail or secure channels (but you'll be surprised how few actually do).

Don't leave it raw!

In cases where distributing individual rows of data is something you're committed to doing, consider ways to protect the people inside the data by anonymizing it, without removing its potential usefulness. For example, one approach that I love from ProPublica Illinois' parking ticket data is the use of one-way hash functions to create consistent (but anonymous) identifiers from license plates: the input always creates the same output, so you can still aggregate by a particular car, but you can't turn that random-looking string of numbers and letters back into an actual license plate. As opposed to "cooking" the data, we can think of this as "seasoning" it, much as we would "salt" a hash function. A similar approach was used in the infosec community in 2016 to identify and confirm sexual abusers in public without actually posting their names (and thus opening the victims up to retaliation).

Toward a kinder, more empathic data journalism

Once upon a time, this industry thought of computer-assisted reporting as a new kind of neutral standard: "precision" or "scientific" journalism. Yet as Catherine D'Ignazio and Lauren Klein point out in Data Feminism, CAR is not neutral, and neither is the way that the underlying data is collected, visualized, and distributed. Instead, like all journalism, it is affected by concerns of race, gender, sexual identity, class, and justice.

It's my hope that this proposal can be a small step to raise the profile of these questions, particularly in legacy newsrooms and journalism schools. In working on several projects at The Seattle Times and NPR, I was surprised to find that although there are guidelines on how to ethically source and process data, it was difficult to find formal advice on ethical publishing of that same data. Other journalists have certainly dealt with this, and yet there are relatively few documents that lay out concrete guidelines on the matter. We can, and should, change that.

Future - Present - Past