Articles by Jim Harper

Jim HarperJim is the Director of Information Policy Studies at The Cato Institute, the Editor of Web-based privacy think-tank Privacilla.org, and the Webmaster of WashingtonWatch.com. Prior to becoming a policy analyst, Jim served as counsel to committees in both the House and Senate.


It’s not the culmination–that will come soon–but a major step in work I direct at the Cato Institute to improve government transparency has been achieved. I’ll be announcing and extolling it Wednesday at the House Administration Committee’s Legislative Data and Transparency conference. Here’s a quick survey of what we’ve been doing and the results we see on the near horizon.

After president Obama’s election in 2008, we recognized transparency as a bipartisan and pan-ideological goal at an event entitled: “Just Give Us the Data.” Widespread agreement and cooperation on transparency has held. But by the mid-point of the president’s first term, the deep-running change most people expected was not materializing, and it still has not. So I began working more assiduously on what transparency is and what delivers it.

In “Publication Practices for Transparent Government” (Sept. 2011), I articulated ways the government should deliver information so that it can be absorbed by the public through the intermediary of web sites, apps, information services, and so on. We graded the quality of government data publication in the aptly named November 2012 paper: “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices.”

But there’s no sense in sitting around waiting for things to improve. Given the incentives, transparency is something that we will have to force on government. We won’t receive it like a gift.

So with software we acquired and modified for the purpose, we’ve been adding data to the bills in Congress, making it possible to learn automatically more of what they do. The bills published by the Government Printing Office have data about who introduced them and the committees to which they were referred. We are adding data that reflects:

- What agencies and bureaus the bills in Congress affect;

- What laws the bills in Congress effect: by popular name, U.S. Code section, Statutes at Large citation, and more;

- What budget authorities bills include, the amount of this proposed spending, its purpose, and the fiscal year(s).

We are capturing proposed new bureaus and programs, proposed new sections of existing law, and other subtleties in legislation. Our “Deepbills” project is documented at cato.org/resources/data.

This data can tell a more complete story of what is happening in Congress. Given the right Web site, app, or information service, you will be able to tell who proposed to spend your taxpayer dollars and in what amounts. You’ll be able to tell how your member of Congress and senators voted on each one. You might even find out about votes you care about before they happen!

Having introduced ourselves to the community in March, we’re beginning to help disseminate legislative information and data on Wikipedia.

The uses of the data are limited only by the imagination of the people building things with it. The data will make it easier to draw links between campaign contributions and legislative activity, for example. People will be able to automatically monitor ALL the bills that affect laws or agencies they are interested in. The behavior of legislators will be more clear to more people. Knowing what happens in Washington will be less the province of an exclusive club of lobbyists and congressional staff.

In no sense will this work make the government entirely transparent, but by adding data sets to what’s available about government deliberations, management and results, we’re multiplying the stories that the data can tell and beginning to lift the fog that allows Washington, D.C. to work the way it does–or, more accurately, to fail the way it does.

At this point, data curator Molly Bohmer and Cato interns Michelle Newby and Ryan Mosely have marked up 75% of the bills introduced in Congress so far. As we fine-tune our processes, we expect essentially to stay current with Congress, making timely public oversight of government easier.

This is not the culmination of the work. We now require people to build things with the data–the Web sites, apps, and information services that can deliver transparency to your door. I’ll be promoting our work at Wednesday’s conference and in various forums over the coming weeks and months. Watch for government transparency to improve when coders get a hold of the data and build the tools and toys that deliver this information to the public in accessible ways.

Tim Lee is right. The Electronic Frontier Foundation post announcing its decision to accept Bitcoin is strange.

“While we are accepting Bitcoin donations,” the post says, “EFF is not endorsing Bitcoin.” (emphasis in original)

They’ve been using dollars over there without anyone inferring that they endorse dollars. They’ve been using various payment systems with no hint of endorsement. And they use all kinds of protocols without disclaiming endorsement—because they don’t need to.

Someone at EFF really doesn’t like Bitcoin. But, oh, how wealthy EFF would be as an institution if they had held on to the Bitcoin they were originally given. I argued at the time it refused Bitcoin that it was making a mistake, not because of the effect on its bottom line, but because it showed timidity in the face of threats to liberty.

Well, just in time for the Bitcoin 2013 conference in San Jose (CA) this weekend, EFF is getting on board. That’s good news, but it’s not as good as the news would have been if EFF had been a stalwart on Bitcoin the entire time. I have high expectations of EFF because it’s one of the great organizations working in the area of digital liberties.

Check out how tribal villagers in parts of India are establishing a basic right that we take for granted. Using GPS and satellite imagery, they’re marking out the plots of land that they have lived on, unrecognized, for decades, and they’re making it their property.

The project is described here, and you can noodle around and find plots that they’ve mapped out here.

There’s a powerful irony lurking underneath the executive order and OMB memorandum on open data that the White House released in tandem today: We don’t have data that tells us what agencies will carry out these policies.

It’s nice that the federal government will work more assiduously to make available the data it collects and creates. And what President Obama’s executive order says is true: “making information resources easy to find, accessible, and usable can fuel entrepreneurship, innovation, and scientific discovery that improves Americans’ lives and contributes significantly to job creation.” GPS and weather data are the premier examples.

But government transparency was the crux of the president’s 2008 campaign promises, and it is still the rightful expectation of the public. Government transparency is not produced by making interesting data sets available. It’s produced by publishing data about the government’s deliberations, management, and results.

Today’s releases make few, if any, nods to that priority. They don’t go to the heart of transparency, but threaten to draw attention away from the fact that basic data about our government, including things as fundamental as the organization of the executive branch of government, are not available as open data.

Yes, there is still no machine-readable government organization chart. This was one of the glaring faults we found when we graded the publication practices of Congress and the executive branch last year, and this fault remains. The coders who may sift through data published by various agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects can’t sift through data reflecting what those organizational units of government are.

Compare today’s policy announcements to events coming up on Capitol Hill in the next two weeks.

On Thursday next week (May 16), the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will host a “DATA Demonstration Day” to illustrate to Congress and the media how technology may cut waste and improve oversight if federal spending data is structured and transparent. (That would include my hobby-horse, the machine-readable federal government organization chart.) We’ll be there demo-ing how we at Cato are adding data to the bills Congress publishes.

On May 22nd, the House Administration Committee is hosting its 2013 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference. This is an event at which various service providers to the House will announce not just policies, but recent, new, and upcoming improvements in publication of data about the House and its deliberations. (We’ll be there, too.)

The administration’s open data announcements are entirely welcome. Some good may come from these policies, and they certainly do no harm (barring procurement boondoggles–which, alas, is a major caveat). But I hope this won’t distract from the effort to produce government transparency, which I view as quite different from the subject of the new executive order and memorandum. The House of Representatives still seems to be moving forward on government transparency with more alacrity.

The Cato Institute is seeking a “researcher to support a campaign to educate the public and policymakers on the implications of biometric identification systems related to immigration policy reforms.

The better applicants will know how many different governmental systems work—legislation, appropriation, regulation, procurement, grant-making, and so on—and have zeal to chase down all the ways the national ID builders are using them to advance their cause.

Immigration reform legislation in the Senate that features a vast expansion of E-Verify is yet another reason to join the fight against having a national ID in the United States.

Last summer at an AEI-sponsored event on cybersecurity, NSA head General Keith Alexander made the case for information sharing legislation aimed at improving cybersecurity. His response to a question from Ellen Nakashima of the Washington Post (starting at 54:25 in the video at the link) was a pretty good articulation of how malware is identified and blocked using algorithmic signatures. In his longish answer, he made the pitch for access to key malware information for the purpose of producing real-time defenses.

What the antivirus world does is it maps that out and creates what’s called a signature. So let’s call that signature A. …. If signature A were to hit or try to get into the power grid, we need to know that signature A was trying to get into the power grid and came from IP address x, going to IP address y.

We don’t need to know what was in that email. We just need to know that it contained signature A, came from there, went to there, at this time.

[I]f we know it at network speed we can respond to it. And those are the authorities and rules and stuff that we’re working our way through.

[T]hat information sharing portion of the legislation is what the Internet service providers and those companies would be authorized to share back and forth with us at network speed. And it only says: signature A, IP address, IP address. So, that is far different than that email that was on it coming.

Now it’s intersting to note, I think—you know, I’m not a lawyer but you could see this—it’s interesting to note that a bad guy sent that attack in there. Now the issue is what about all the good people that are sending their information in there, are you reading all those. And the answer is we don’t need to see any of those. Only the ones that had the malware on it. Everything else — and only the fact that that malware was there — so you didn’t have to see any of the original emails. And only the ones that had the malware on it did you need to know that something was going on.

It might be interesting to get information about who sent malware, but General Alexander said he wanted to know attack signatures, originating IP address, and destination. That’s it.

Now take a look at what CISPA, the Cybersecurity Information Sharing and Protection Act (H.R. 624), allows companies to share with the government provided they can’t be proven to have acted in bad faith:

information directly pertaining to—

(i) a vulnerability of a system or network of a government or private entity or utility;

(ii) a threat to the integrity, confidentiality, or availability of a system or network of a government or private entity or utility or any information stored on, processed on, or transiting such a system or network;

(iii) efforts to deny access to or degrade, disrupt, or destroy a system or network of a government or private entity or utility; or

(iv) efforts to gain unauthorized access to a system or network of a government or private entity or utility, including to gain such unauthorized access for the purpose of exfiltrating information stored on, processed on, or transiting a system or network of a government or private entity or utility.

That’s an incredible variety of subjects. It can include vast swaths of data about Internet users, their communications, and the files they upload. In no sense is it limited to attack signatures and relevant IP addresses.

What is going on here? Why has General Alexander’s claim to need attack signatures and IP addresses resulted in legislation that authorizes wholesale information sharing and that immunizes companies who violate privacy in the process? One could only speculate. What we know is that CISPA is a vast overreach relative to the problem General Alexander articulated. The House is debating CISPA Wednesday and Thursday this week.

With Bitcoin enjoying a spike in price against government currencies, there is lots of talk about it on the Interwebs, including Jerry’s typically thoughtful post from earlier today. If you’re not familiar with it yet, here’s a good Bitcoin primer, which also counsels reading a lot more before you acquire Bitcoin, as Bitcoin may fail. If you like Bitcoin and want to buy some, don’t go all goofy. Do your homework. As if you need to be told, be careful with your money.

Much of the commentary in the popular press declares a Bitcoin bubble for one reason or another. It might be a bubble, but nobody actually knows. A way of guessing is to compare Bitcoin’s qualities as a currency and payment network to the alternatives. Like any service or good, there are many dimensions to value storage and transfer.

I may not capture them all, and they certainly don’t predict the correct price against the dollar or other currencies. That depends on the ultimate viscosity of Bitcoin. But Bitcoin certainly has value of a different kind: it may discipline fiat currencies and the states that control them.

Intrinsic Value: If you’re just starting to think about money, this is where you’ll find Bitcoin an obvious failure. These evanescent strings of code have no intrinsic value whatsoever! Anyone relying on them as a store of value is a volunteer victim. Smart people stick with U.S. dollars and other major currencies, thin sheets of cloth or plastic with special printing on them…

No major currency has intrinsic value. Indeed, there isn’t much of anything that has intrinsic value. The value of a thing depends on other people’s demand for it. This is as true of Bitcoin as it is of dollars, sandwiches, and sand. So the intrinsic value question, which seems to cut in favor of traditional currencies, is actually a wash.

Transferability: Bitcoin is good with transferability–far better than any physical currency and quite a bit better than most payment systems. Not only is it fast, with transactions “settling” fairly quickly, but it is borderless. The genius of PayPal (after it gave up on being a replacement monetary system itself) was quick transfer to most places that rich people want to send money. Bitcoin allows quick transfer anywhere the Internet goes.

Acceptance: Bitcoin bombs badly in the area of acceptance. Try buying a sandwich with Bitcoin today and you’ll go hungry because few people and businesses accept it. This is a real problem, but it’s nothing intrinsic to Bitcoin. When Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, people didn’t understand that credit cards were like money. (Watch the video at the link two or three times if you need to. It’s not only a great moment in sports.) Acceptance of different form-factors for value and payments can change.

Cost: How many billions of dollars per year do we pay for storage and transfer of money? Bitcoin is free.

Inflation-Resistance: Assuming the algorithms work as advertised, the quantity of Bitcoin will rise to a pre-established level of about 21 million over the next couple of decades and will never increase after that. This compares favorably to fiat currencies, the quantity of which are amended by their managers, sometimes quite dramatically, to undercut their value. If you want to hold money, holding Bitcoin is a better deal than holding dollars. Which brings us to…

Deflation-Resistance: Without central planners around to carefully debase its value, Bitcoin might go deflationary, with people refusing to spend it while it rises against all other stores of value and goods. Arguably, that’s what’s happening in the current Bitcoin price-spike. People are buying it in anticipation of its future increase in value.

Deflation can theoretically cause an economy to seize up, with everyone refusing to buy in anticipation of their money gaining in value over the short term. There is room for discussion about whether hyper-deflation can actually occur, how long a hyper-deflation can persist, and whether the avoidance of deflation is worth the risk of having centrally managed currency. I have a hard time being concerned that excessive savings could occur. However, whatever the case with those related issues, Bitcoin is probably deflation-prone compared to dollars and other managed currencies.

Surveillance-Resistance: Where you put your money is a reflection of your values. Payment systems and governments today are definitely gawking through that window into our souls.

Bitcoin, on the other hand, allows payments to be made with very little chance of their being tracked. I say “little chance” because there is some chance of tracking payments on the network. Sophisticated efforts to mask payments will be met by sophisticated efforts to track them. Relatively speaking, though, payments through traditional payment systems like checks, credit cards, and online transfer are super-easy to track. Cash is pretty darn hard to track. So Bitcoin stacks up well against our formal payment systems, but equally or perhaps poorly to cash.

Seizure-Resistance: The digital, distributed nature of Bitcoin makes it resistant to official seizure. Are you in a country that exercises capital controls? (What a euphemism, “capital controls.” It’s seizure.) Put your money into Bitcoin and you can email it to yourself. Carve your Bitcoin code into the inner lip of your frisbee before heading out on that Black Sea vacation. Chances are they won’t catch it at the border.

Traditional currencies either exist in physical form or they’re held and transferred by institutions that are more obediant to the state than they are loyal to their customers. (If Cyprus has anything to do with the current price-spike of Bitcoin, it’s as a lesson to others. Cypriots apparently did not move into Bitcoin in significant numbers.)

Because Bitcoin transactions are relatively hard to track, many can be conducted–how to put this?–independent of one’s tax obligations. In relation to the weight of the tax burden, Bitcoin may grow underground economies. Indeed, it flourishes where transactions (in drugs, for example) are outright illegal. Bitcoin probably moves the Laffer curve to the left.

Security: The tough one for Bitcoin is security. Most people don’t know how to store computer code reliably and how to prevent others from accessing it. Individuals have lost Bitcoin because of hard-drive crashes. (This will cause small losses in the total quantity of Bitcoin over time.) Bitcoin exchanges have collapsed because hackers broke in. And there’s a genuine risk that viruses might camp on your computer, waiting for you to open your (otherwise encrypted) wallet file. They’ll send your Bitcoin to heaven-knows-where the moment you do.

When a Bitcoin transaction has happened, it is final. Like a cash expenditure or loss, there is no reversability and nobody to complain to if you don’t have access to the person on the other side of the transaction. The downside of a currency that costs nothing to transfer is the lack of a 1-800 number to call.

So Bitcoin lags traditional currencies along the security dimension. But this is not intrinsic to Bitcoin. Security will get better as people learn and technology advances. (How ’bout a mega-firewall that requires approval of all outbound Internet traffic while the wallet is open?)

There may be Bitcoin-based payment services, banks, and lenders that provide reversibility, security, that pay interest, and all the other goodies associated with dollars today. To the extent they can stay clear of the regulatory morass, they may be less expensive, more innovative, and, in the early going, more risky.

So what’s the right price for Bitcoin? Only a fool can say. (No offense, all of you declaring a Bitcoin bubble.) I think it depends on the ultimate “viscosity” of Bitcoin.

Let’s say Bitcoin’s exclusive use becomes a momentary medium of exchange: Every buyer converts currency to Bitcoin for transfer, and every seller immediately converts it to her local currency. There’s not much need to hold Bitcoin, so there’s not that much demand for Bitcoin. Its equilibrium price ends up pretty low.

On the other hand, say everybody in the world keeps a little Bitcoin on hand for quick, costless transactions once there’s a handy, reliable, and secure Bitcoin payment system downloadable to our phones. If lots of people hold Bitcoin just because, that highly viscous environment suggests a high price for Bitcoin relative to other currencies and things.

Whatever the case, people are now buying Bitcoin because they think others are going to buy it in the future. Whether they’re “speculators” trying to buy in ahead of other speculators, or if they’re buying Bitcoin as a hedge against the varied weaknesses of fiat currencies and state-controlled payment systems, it doesn’t matter.

What does matter, I think, is having this outlet. The availability of Bitcoin is a small, but growing and important security against fiat currencies and state-controlled payments. It is a competitor to state money.

Bitcoin’s existence makes central bankers slightly less free to inflate the money they control, states will have slightly less success with seizing money, and surveillance of traditional payment systems will be decreasingly useful for law enforcement, taxation, and control.

I don’t think Bitcoin delivers us to libertarian “Shangri-la” or anarcho-capitalism, but it’s a technology that fetters government some. It’s a protection for people, their hard-earned wealth, and their privacy. That’s the value of Bitcoin, in my mind, no matter its current price.

If you haven’t seen Edward Hasbrouck’s talk on government surveillance of travel IT systems, you should.

It’s startling to learn just how much access people other than your airline have to your air travel plans.

Here’s just one image that Hasbrouck put together to illustrate what the system looks like.

He’ll be presenting his travel surveillance talk at the Cato Institute at noon on April 2nd. We’ll also be discussing the new public notice on airport strip-search machines issued by the TSA earlier this week.

Register now for Travel Surveillance, Traveler Intrusion.

travel surveillance

In anticipation of a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday afternoon, Sandra Aistars, executive director of the Copyright Alliance, writes in The Hill about the principles that should guide copyright reform, calling for debate “based in reality rather than rhetoric.”

Chief among these principles is that protecting authors is in the public interest. Ensuring that all creators retain the freedom of choice in determining how their creative work is used, disseminated and monetized is vital to protecting freedom of expression.

Arguing for authors in terms of freedom of choice and expression is good rhetoric, but it’s quite unlike what I expect you’ll hear during Cato’s noon Wednesday forum on copyright and the book Laws of Creation: Property Rights in the World of Ideas.

Authors Ron Cass and Keith Hylton methodically go through each intellectual property doctrine and explore its economic function, giving few words to authors’ “choice” or their “freedom of expression.” They certainly don’t denigrate authors or their role, but Cass and Hylton don’t vaunt them the way Aistars does either.

Recent events in the copyright area are providing much grist for the discussion. You can still register for the book forum, treating it as a warm-up for Wednesday afternoon’s hearing, if your freedom of choice and expression so dictate.

Register here now for next Wednesday’s Cato book forum on Laws of Creation: Property Rights in the World of Ideas.

In the book, Ronald A. Cass and Keith Hylton reject the idea that changing technology undermines the case for intellectual property rights. They argue that making the work of inventors and creators free would be a costly mistake.

That cuts against the bulk of academic opinion today, which is critical of the broad scope and length of intellectual property protections today. The book has qualities that many libertarians will enjoy because it starts with first principles: the theoretical underpinnings and practical benefits of property rights.

By no means does the book answer all the questions, and we’ll have TLF’s own Jerry Brito, the editor of Copyright Unbalanced, on hand to provide commentary.

That’s Wednesday (3/20) at noon in the Cato Institute’s F.A. Hayek auditorium. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but the sandwiches provided afterwards come at the low cost of learning more dimensions of the intellectual property debate. Register now!