How much Government Data needs to be secure?

By Bryan Rasmussen
June 22, 2008

I was at a miniature day-long workshop on REST webservices for Denmark lately and
another attendee and I were communicating at cross-purposes at one point on security.

The argument on his side was that SOAP based webservices offered more
reliability and security than REST. I could have gone down the ally of arguing that
these things can be implemented on top of REST but I didn't because I don't really care
that much about accessing secure government data, I care about accessing public data
that should be generally accessible because I believe this is the data that you can
build meaningful services on top of for the widest range of people.

So here's a core
beliefs: I believe that in a well-functioning democratic government the greatest
proportion of governmental data will be publicly available without restriction to its

The other fellow obviously did not believe this was the case. I think the
disbelief was based on what was the core of his business, and his interests, all the
data he worked with had strong security requirements.

Government agencies release data
all the time, and analyses on the quantity of data they possess, but nobody has an
oversight as to what quantity there is all together, and what the security restrictions

How much data needs to be intra-governmentally secured (spying, military secrets),
safe from public access, how much needs to be secured for only citizen access (citizen
taxes, identification records), and how much should be free for everyone (geographic
data, environmental data...)?

I figure most of us can agree that the amount of intra-governmental data
should be less than free governmental data, because to say otherwise is to suppose a
government that not only fears its citizens (a good thing according to some political
thinkers) but a government that is trying to hide as much as it can from its citizens.
The main point of analysis should be which is more: data that must be made accessible to
the citizen that it pertains to, and data that should be free for everyone. I don't know of any way of determining which is which(although I certainly would like to be informed), and that I believe the last case
is the largest.

The reason why I think data that should be freely available is the largest set of
Government data is that many of the forms of this data can bind to everything, for
example location data is often held by the government and just about everything real has
location. Time data is often held by government archives, and the data goes back lots
longer than the data that must be maintained secretly. Time data is also interesting
because most data that must be kept secure only needs its security for a time, often it
is deemed no longer threatening to the status of the government or the individuals on
whom it was maintained and is released to the historians. Thus data moves in the
direction of less secrecy over time, but it does not tend to move towards a state of
more secrecy because once it's out there, it's out there (I'm sure lots of examples can
show this argument is not universal.) Finally a good deal of research data is
governmental, and publicly accessible. These data sets tend to be very big, astronomical
charts, pictorial archives etc.
When I think of governmental data I think of all this
stuff as well, if the government is the guardian of it, and I paid for it with my taxes
(or more likely my Grandfather paid for it with his), then I would like to have services
to access it, to manipulate it, and to build applications that analyze it myself or to hopefully avail myself of the analyses that others have made.

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