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Iron Man, Batman and Spider-Man: What We Can Learn About Privacy From Superheroes

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The explicit message of modern superhero stories is best summed up in Spiderman’s origin tale, “with great power comes great responsibility.”  But the implicit message is that some people are able to exert greater influence over events than others.  And, whether in the DC or Marvel universe, there is a relationship between the way someone can exert their influence and the kind of privacy they create for themselves.

In comic books, power is usually attained in exotic ways: by accident, life-long training, technology, or alien birth.  But whatever the cause, what makes the person who possesses that power a hero or a villain is whether they exert their outsized influence in malevolent or beneficial civic acts.  Heroes rescue kittens from trees, help solve crimes, protect others’ rights; villains do the opposite.

In the real world, some people have always had more influence in the civic space than others, especially those in elected or appointed government positions.  Two emerging trends, however, are allowing people who are neither elected nor appointed to act like superheroes, exerting outsized influence in the civic space.  

Pervasive, open computing coupled with a government increasingly open to citizen participation are, together, allowing more and more people to leverage various powers of government to their own ends.  And these powers are conferred not by radioactive spiders, but rather because government managers open up the processes and resources of their offices to app developers, and through them, to any and all citizens.

Together, the pervasiveness of digital social media and the opening of government for civic engagement, have given rise to tools like SeeClickFixPublicStuff; to sites likePopVox.comRegulations.govWe The People, and Americans Speaking Out; and to initiatives like RFP-EZ and, more generally, the Presidential Innovation Fellowsprogram.

The benefits of having more people involved in government speak to our values as a nation: we want a less expensive, more effective government, and one that draws legitimacy from broad-based participation.  As government managers try to meet the needs of a diverse polity, allowing individuals outside the government to execute both mission-critical and mission-support tasks is often the only way to keep costs low while delivering promised services.  And more eyes on government functions often translates to greater trust and legitimacy in that government.

But the apps and Web sites through which people will participate are not dreamed up by Stan Lee.  Government managers write up requirements for those tools, and in doing so, must address privacy concerns.  If citizens are required to yield too much privacy, they may not participate at all.  But given too much privacy, citizens’ trust in government may suffer as some people abuse the system. 

The example of superheroes can help managers and private citizens by illustrating three approaches to privacy.

The first is that of Tony Stark, immediately recognizable as himself, and public about his role as Iron Man.  In contrast, Peter Parker and Clark Kent are innocuous alter-egos for Spiderman and Superman, but the actions they take as those heroes are public.  Bruce Wayne, however, limits the extent to which Batman is ever seen and much of his work is completely hidden from view.  These privacy regimes have corollaries in the civic actions that mobile computing and open government are making available to any member of the public.

 Iron Man model: Authenticated Identity

Tony Stark is as recognizable in a t-shirt and jeans as he is in his suit of armor.  Nearly alone among the pantheon of superheroes, he has been dragged before a congressional committee to account for his actions.  This openness (of identity) is necessary, however, because both as Tony Stark and as Iron Man, he acts in explicit partnership with the government, in the form of its military.  Tony’s billions are the result of public sector contracts, and in each of the three recent movies, he depends both on military personnel and materiel to act.

Likewise, when citizens are full partners in developing or delivering government services, they are often required to use an authenticated identity.  This does not mean, however, that they give up all their privacy.  Tony’s fortune allows him to have a private estate with guards and gates, but individuals who only occasionally volunteer their time and talents should expect that when they are not actively participating in the civic space, they can resume a private life.  Examples: Government contractorsOnline commenters on federal rules.

Spiderman/Superman model: Authenticated Pseudonymity

Sometimes, however, it is necessary to create an alternate identity through which to act.  Spiderman and Superman both work with civil authorities, but they complete entire functions on their own: they apprehend criminals, though they do not try them, for example.  Spiderman does this because he wants to be Peter Parker as well, and he can’t have all the villains in the world constantly harassing him.  Superman, likewise, wants to have a life beyond his civic duty, which is impossible with a red ‘s’ emblazoned on one’s chest.

When people—especially those with technical specialties of one kind or another—want to get involved in civic action, but do not want it to dominate their lives, they will find it easier to do so if they are offered the option of using a persistent pseudonym rather than being forced to use their real names.  Pseudonyms could prove useful in discussing topics that divide a community, or in acting as a recognizable figure but being able to maintain a completely separate non-public life.  Examples: Petition signatoriesparticipants in social media discussions.

Batman model: Anonymity

While Superman strives to be an example for the people he protects, Batman wants more than anything not to be needed at all.  One of the ways that he tries to accomplish his mission is by letting the various systems within Gotham work, helping them behind the scenes, and allowing them to take credit for what he does. 

Interestingly, a lot of what Batman gives the police is information.   There is an obvious real-world corollary in crowdsourced intelligence: where Batman is often depicted in his cave, viewing dozens, if not hundreds of monitors, outside the comic pages, hundreds, if not thousands of individuals are capturing and viewing images and videos of nearly every event from many angles.  And while all of them together might help piece together a crime scene, none of the contributors needs to be identified.  Examples: DC’s 311 appOnline permitting complaint for Montgomery County, MD.

Privacy, Participation, and Trust

Privacy should be as important to government managers and app designers as it is to the citizens who will use their services.  Too little privacy will deter participants, while too much privacy will encourage bad behavior and erode legitimacy. Some types of civic engagement is possible only if people are willing to be upfront about who they are; talking about the openness of identity in petitions, judicial reporter Dahlia Lithwick asked: “what happens to democracy when everyone's too scared to show up?”

Still, private citizens may legitimately want to retain some aspects of privacy even as they participate in the public sphere.  Using persistent pseudonyms is one way to do that, but other ways exist as well.  TrustCloud offers an intriguing model: assigning a kind of score that people can append to various online identities and attributes to vouch for their veracity. 

While it might have been true ten years ago that on the internet, no one knows you're a dog, that's certainly not the case today.    But if we want people to use digital tools to participate in their government, privacy has be a feature, not a bug.

This topic is the subject of a SxSW proposal. Vote for it here.

Image via ollyy/Shutterstock.com

Gadi Ben-Yehuda is the Director of Innovation and Social Media for the IBM Center for The Business of Government. Previously, he was a Web Strategist for the District of Columbia's Office of the Chief Technology Officer. He has taught creative, expository, and Web writing for more than 10 years to university students, private-sector professionals, and soldiers. He has an MFA in poetry from American University, has taught writing at Howard University, and has worked in Washington, DC, for nonprofits, lobbying organizations, Fleishman-Hillard Global Communications, and Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.

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