Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Politics of Data

People are finding new and interesting ways to use their computers to enrich their lives. Many are choosing to be politically active by making discussion groups to exchange ideas and challenge existing rhetoric.  They form alliances and pressure groups. The internet is doing more to roll grass roots politics to the public than anything that has been before.

On line petitions have become very popular. There are websites and organisations like and who promote ideas to their members and collect electronic 'signatures'. It only takes a politician to announce an unpopular piece of legislation on television, and they can expect to be handed a petition signed by tens of thousands of people from one of these websites within a couple of days.

This kind of instant feedback to politicians must be very useful to gauge public reaction and prevent policy mistakes. It is also doing lot to re engage politicians with a public who have often been marginalised by intense political lobbying from corporate and foreign interests who have close access to government officials.

Although politicians must take these petitions seriously, they may have a good reason to challenge their validity. The question is about authentication - the process of making sure the person signing the online petition is who they say they are. 

Authentication of online petitions require very little information - the email address, forename, surname and postcode. Anyone with access to an electoral role and also possessing a large volume of email addresses could possibly build an automated process to generate thousands of signatures on an online website. 

So politicians cannot be sure that all of the signatures are true. They could be falsified by corporate or political interest groups. They could also be from people living outside your country, as the internet is truly global, people living outside your country can authenticate if they know a valid postcode in your country.

Personal authentication to an individual is certainly within the realms of possibility, with the use of biometric fingerprinting, RFID chips and identity cards. However, there are fundamental human rights and personal freedoms that need to be addressed.

Until we can find a solution to authentication that does not compromise our rights to privacy and freedom, online petitions may not be as effective as we hope.

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