By Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai2013-05-29 22:40:44 UTC
The American Civil Liberties Union wants hackers and developers to take its treasure trove of torture documents and make apps and data visualizations with it. The goal? Hold the U.S. government accountable while giving Americans a better glimpse into the Bush administration's so-called "enhanced interrogation" practices.
The initiative is part of The National Day of Civic Hacking, an event promoted by the White House and other partners to liberate government data for coders and entrepreneurs. The idea is to allow citizens, developers and hackers to use the datasets however they see fit with the goal of making information more accessible to the public. The event is happening June 1st and 2nd online and with physical events across the country.
For the ACLU, this was the perfect occasion to do something a little different.
Chris Soghoian, the ACLU principal technologist and senior policy analyst, argued to Mashable that when the government willingly releases data to the public, it's normally information that can make citizens' lives more convenient — data relating to potholes or subway arrival times, for example. Rarely is it controversial data that might help citizens hold the government accountable.
That's the idea behind the API that the ACLU has released for the National Day of Civic Hacking. The API opens the door to its "Torture Database," a dataset the ACLU launched last year containing more than 100,000 pages of government documents relating to the Bush's administration treatment of detainees after 9/11.
"This is not about giving you information to what movies are playing in your neighborhood, or which restaurant is getting the 'A' letter grade from the public health department," Soghoian said in a phone interview. "There are many, many kinds of data that developers can access, but I don't know of any other open API that when you submit a query, you get in response redacted CIA documents."
The documents were obtained by the ACLU after a lengthy legal battle following a Freedom of Information Act request submitted in 2003. According to the ACLU, the files are "the largest public repository of primary-source documents" showing what happened to suspected terrorist who were detained abroad and transported between CIA black sites (a practice called "extraordinary rendition"). That's where most of them were questioned with what the administration defined "enhanced interrogation techniques."
The database contains all sorts of material, from the infamous legal memos authorizing the CIA to use enhanced interrogation techniques to CIA and military emails that discuss the interrogation policies, and authorizations for the use of torture coming "from the highest levels of government," according to the ACLU blog post announcing the API.
Given their highly sensitive and historical nature, the ACLU thinks this dataset will be very attractive to politically motivated developers with interests in government transparency and accountability, as Soghoian explained.
"The incidents that are documented in our database, they document a very bad time in America's history. This is something that none of us are really proud of, [and] our government hasn't been held accountable." Soghoian said. "And the best way to make that happen is to make it as easy as possible for people to look at this information."
Image via John Moore/Getty ImagesTopics: ACLU, National Day of Civic Hacking, torture, U.S., US & World