openDemocracyUK

Journalists should be hackers - but target the open web, not private phones

The News of the World scandal has changed our perception of the term 'hacker'. But the technique of hacking is opening up a new future for online news and newsgathering that is in the public interest and is becoming increasingly vital for holding power to account
Nicola Hughes
22 July 2011

The term ‘hacker’ warrants re-examining in light of the unravelling News of the World scandal. The circle within which my journalistic persona travels is that of hack/hackers. I am part hacker. I am a data journalism advocate for a developer platform called ScraperWiki. And I am very concerned about how this tumultuous time in journalism history will define the word ‘hack’ and all its related synonyms.

Wikipedia has one definition of ‘Hacker’ as “a subculture of innovative uses and modifications of computer hardware, software, and modern culture”. I sit on the edge of this and want to look further into the nucleus as a possible future of online news and newsgathering. ScraperWiki uses the technique of ‘scraping’: the programming form that takes information from the web and pares it down into its raw programmatic ingredients. So it can be baked into something more digestible to the public. It is one of a core set of online tools being used by the Open Data community. 

The people who are part of this community (I flatter myself to be included) are ‘hackers’ by the best definition of the word. The web allows anyone to publish their code online so these people are citizen hackers. They are the creators of such open civic websites as Schooloscope, Openly Local, Open Corporates, Who’s Lobbying, They Work For You, Fix My Street, Where Does My Money Go? and What Do They Know? This is information in the public interest. This is a new subset of journalism. This is the web enabling civic engagement with public information. This is hacking. But, unlike other fields of citizen journalism, it requires a very particular set of skills.

I have a twitter account, @Scrape_No10, tweeting out meetings, gifts and hospitality at No.10. I have another, @OJCstatements, which tweets out statements by the Office for Judicial Complaints regarding judges who have been investigated over personal conduct included racism, sexism and abuse of their position. This information is on the web so it is in the public domain. But it is not in the public sphere because the public don’t check the multitude of websites that may hold information in the public interest. So I have put it on the platform where it can be of most use to the public.

In that sense, I feel journalists need to be ‘hackers’; they need to hack. Information in the public interest is not often available to the public. More and more government data is being put on the web in the form of PDFs and CSVs. Now, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the government doesn’t have to answer your request directly if the information is published online or will be published online. That means that with increasing amounts of information being published in the form of spreadsheets or databases, the public are going to be pointed to a sea of columns and rows rather than given direct answers. So journalists need to get to grips with data to get the public their answers.

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But as we know, any journalistic endeavour is open to abuse. Citizen journalism is no exception, as we saw with Ryan Giggs’ online ousting, blurring the boundary between the right to get private information out in the open and the right to the privacy of the individual. Deleting the voice messages of a missing girl is clearly overstepping the bounds. The public will never forgive such behaviour, but invading politicians’ privacy for the purpose of uncovering corruption is often forgiven, and justifiably.

The argument can be made that information on the web is public information and can be used freely in a journalistic endeavour. But that isn’t always the case. The British and Irish Legal Information Institute portal, BAILII, does not allow scraping. So while I would love to the make the legal system more digestible, I can’t. This is because BAILII have their own databases of information that they sell to private companies. One of these is a database of court fines that they sell to a multitude of credit card companies. So we pay for the judicial system and if we’re fined by it they have the right to make money from the data to affect our credit rating. This makes the information they put online locked into the format they chose to put it in – a complicated and convoluted web portal.

But what about unearthing a deleted tweet or matching social media accounts through email addresses that are not disclosed but which could be guessed at? Not accessing their private emails, not getting past any firewall that requires a password, but using details behind the front end of the web to dig deeper into their online connections? Linking online personas that are set up to be separate?

It’s not the technique that should be outlawed; it’s the endeavour. Please don’t let the News of the World define ‘hacking’. In the Shakespearean sense of “That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet”, we should define journalism not by a word but by what it smells like. Something stank about the initial inquiry into the News of the World. Nick Davies smelled it and followed his nose. And that’s the definition of journalism. 

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