Web 2.0 Blog – Discovering Innovation Opportunities using Social Media

A Privacy Wall Concept to make My.Gov a reality: Sometimes a wall in the information age is a good thing.

Posted on: February 8, 2009

An electronic privacy wall would allow citizens to collaborate with, get services from, and find relevant information from governments but protect the citizen against intrusion by government.

I would love to have a page which I could go to and look at all of my interactions with governments, federal, state and local.

My my.gov page would have:

A personal section. To let me know if my kids can eat tuna without getting mercury poisoning, the latest science on issues related to my family’s health etc etc, when I495 would have scheduled delays because of Metro construction.

A Must Do section.
Where I could do my taxes, check license requirements, pay federal taxes and local parking tickets.

An events section. I could see what is happening locally at public meetings, town concerts or of a webstream debate on a bill which interests me.

A professional interests section.  Showing legislation and information important to my business and profession, even government grants which might apply to me.

A sound off area. My opinions and concerns could be directed to the right set of ears.

Government is too large and complex to put this together manually.. We would need to rely on a intelligent ‘relevance’ agent or service to bring to us what might be of interest so we can select from it. The relevance agent would need a profile of me so it would know what to look for.

But Wait!

For that to happen, I would have divulge a lot of information about myself, my family, my business. Most people including myself start hesitating when they realize this and would rather put up with the wildly disperse and hard to understand services, requirements, and information offered by the multiple governments each one of us is involved in than give up privacy to government!

So what if we created a privacy wall which on side we could put our information so a ‘relevance agent’ could search for and give us a selection of services to choose from to make my My.gov page.

The privacy wall would essentially act a smart ssl certificate. It would use our OpenID or some central login and create a private profile for us, but it would at the same time prevent the government side on the other side of the wall from seeing what we put in our profile. Some information might be allowed to have 2 way access such as ‘first name’ or even better ‘user name’ when dealing with most agencies, but except for a few select fields and then only if they are directly relevant to the task. So on IRS inquires they could see your tax information for that inquire (personal SSN but not business info during a personal inquiry).

This is similar to how facebook application permissions work except that allowed information for an application is traceable back to a public profile. We would have a more opague wall and while a statistical service which might see most fields, a government agency or agent would be restricted from putting together even a nearly complete profile without our express permission and even then the additional information would only be available for that transaction. It could even allow for anonymous inquiries which would be completely opague in cases such as terrorist tips etc.

The privacy wall would also have a role in making government more transparent. More records could be released about government decision making and services if all transactions automatically were linked to the privacy transaction rather than having, in the record, all specifics talked about during a single transaction.

This is a complex task. But there are some parts which are obvious. A government official doesnt need to see my IP address or track the number of times I use My.gov, so that could be masked. But a statistical analysis should be able to see how many times ‘an entity with some of my profile characteristics’ visited and so it could improve services such as the relevance agent. But no one in the government need know that Ken Fischer has an interest in mercury in the rivers and has done a consulting gig for X company which might be reported on a 1099 filing.
Of course the privacy wall is not only a technical hurdle. It is a legislative and policy hurdle as well. We would have to convince a lot of people who are not immersed in social media of the value of a profile which could be used to improve service immensely to citizens, help improve the accessibility of information by learning what is relevant to citizens of a certain profile type but also a BRICK WALL of privacy safeguarding the citizen from the government becoming overly intrusive.

Not only would this be good for citizens to be able to collaborate with and interact with their government, it would allow government agencies to answer requests and questions without the 5-10min or even multiple day task of re-verifying information every time we interact with a government agency.
So that’s idea for the day…Any thoughts?


3 Responses to "A Privacy Wall Concept to make My.Gov a reality: Sometimes a wall in the information age is a good thing."

[…] That is also enough motivation for me to restrict my tweets, delete my MySpace page, and stop participating in public mailing lists with my real name. I have been giving away the information. Like Ken Fischer says Sometimes, a wall in the information age is a good thing. […]

The concept of a “my gov” feature goes back at least as far as 2000. Some states actually implemented them … and then nobody came. People said they wanted them, so why didn’t they use them?

I think you hit on the answer here, and it’s intriguingly tied to another thorny issue we face in government: how to absolutely, positively verify somebody – to protect access to their confidential data – in a reasonable way. Many people, for instance, might only use that login once a year, so demanding frequent password changes doesn’t work so well. And the price tag has proven prohibitive, too.

I think your solution just might work. Perhaps with the current focus on collaboration plus tight budgets, governments at federal, state, and local levels could be convinced to work together on something like this.

This sounds like a fantastic idea overall. If Amazon can suggest books and I can provide feedback to improve their suggestions, I should be able to provide feedback that improves the relevance of events & reports fed to a personalized page. When I go to any agency page and start to search, it could offer me the opportunity to start building my profile to suggest more info in future. If I opt in, away we go.

I would start with the federal government, which has more information to offer than any other, and make it possible to build an interest page. That would expand the usefulness of the googleplex of knowledge and data being developed all the time by public agencies. Offer the ability to increase the relevance of info by tying it to a zip code, so the report from the national parks in my area is what pops out. That’s low-threshold privacy.

I wouldn’t start out trying to tie any personal records such as tax payments. You can provide generic reminders about April 15 without alarming people. Get them used to getting info, then they’ll be more willing to give it down the road.

These are the same concerns being addressed now in the world of electronic medical records and personal health records. If you think your taxes are personal, try your colonoscopy results :D.

We also address this in higher ed as we create portals that provide access both to “info of interest”–upcoming events tied to your major or department–and your personal records such as grades, financial aid awards, and the fine for those long-overdue books at the library. So the models are out there.


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