In California, most gays and lesbians got wind of EightMaps.com when a link made its viral way around the Internet about a month ago. The web site is a mashup of Google maps and public information available about supporters who donated so Prop 8 would pass.
It made me feel a bit queasy when I actually tried it out. The reason wasn’t because it revealed a lot of markers in conservative Newport Beach (no surprises there!), but rather that I could actually see the contributor’s name, approximate location, amount donated and his/her employer (if one was listed at the time of donation) and it’s only a matter of time until someone turns the tables and creates a map of donors that gave to defeat the proposition (um, that would be me).
Thanks to disclosure laws that haven’t stayed current with advances in technology … there’s plenty of public data for mining and mashing as the creators of EightMaps have demonstrated. Herein lies the controversy as noted by this article in yesterday’s New York Times:
That is why the soundtrack to eightmaps.com is a loud gnashing of teeth among civil libertarians, privacy advocates and people supporting open government. The site pits their cherished values against each other: political transparency and untarnished democracy versus privacy and freedom of speech.
“When I see those maps, it does leave me with a bit of a sick feeling in my stomach,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, which has advocated for open democracy. “This is not really the intention of voter disclosure laws. But that’s the thing about technology. You don’t really know where it is going to take you.”
Ms. Alexander and many Internet activists have good reason to be queasy. California’s Political Reform Act of 1974, and laws like it across the country, sought to cast disinfecting sunlight on the political process by requiring contributions of more than $100 to be made public.
Eightmaps takes that data, formerly of interest mainly to social scientists, pollsters and journalists, and publishes it in a way not foreseen when the open-government laws were passed. As a result, donors are exposed to a wide audience and, in some cases, to harassment or worse.
In this case, it doesn’t shed a positive light on the wide audience… since we can assume that some in our community are the ones doing the harassing:
A college professor from the University of California, San Francisco, wrote a $100 check in support of Proposition 8 in August, because he said he supported civil unions for gay couples but did not want to change the traditional definition of marriage. He has received many confrontational e-mail messages, some anonymous, since eightmaps listed his donation and employer. One signed message blasted him for supporting the measure and was copied to a dozen of his colleagues and supervisors at the university, he said.
“I thought what the eightmaps creators did with the information was actually sort of neat,” the professor said, who asked that his name not be used to avoid becoming more of a target. “But people who use that site to send out intimidating or harassing messages cross the line.”
So here’s the big money question: In the future, will you think twice about giving money to campaigns and participating this way in the political process because of where your personal information might end up. If so, then thank the creators of the EightMaps.com, who remain, ahem anonymous.
Image credit: New York Times.