Attention government officials: Citizens are watching you – and they should

WikipediaLogoI caught this Mashable article the other day and it’s both funny and sad.  In short, using an IP address, a Twitter bot tracked every time someone working on Capitol Hill edited a Wikipedia article.  In the round of changes covered by the Mashable article, editors were making changes to articles on a variety of subjects, including Crimea and right-wing journalist Alex Jones.

These edits may not violate Wikipedia policy, though you can certainly make the argument that this isn’t the best use of a government employees time (I know, they may have been on lunch, but now we’re getting really deep into HR issues, so let’s just move on).  However, sometimes, the edits aren’t quite as harmless.  I have previously written about very similar issues, like when staffers for eleven different Texas Congressman were busted for making changes to their bosses’ Wikipedia pages – something which violates Wikipedia policy, since you aren’t supposed to edit a Wikipedia page that is your own or related to someone you work for.  Indeed, this is such a common problem that Wikipedia has an article dedicated to U.S. Congressional Staff edits to Wikipedia.

There is a broader conversation to be had here, in terms of how technology can dramatically reduce inappropriate use of government resources by public employees, or elected officials themselves. One of the greatest criticisms I’ve heard about elected officials, or public sector employees in general, is that we are arrogant or don’t care about the laws that we are supposed to enforce.  By and large, I think this is totally inaccurate–the vast majority of public employees and elected officials that I have come into contact with care deeply about their jobs and the people they are elected to represent.  However, it goes without saying that this attitude is certainly present in some.

Bots like the one that track Congressional edits to Wikipedia articles – and, of course, the people who set them up in the first place and then monitor their activity – have serious implications for tracking potentially inappropriate actions of government officials.  Government officials would do well to remember that IP addresses can be easily viewed. That makes it harder for us to be anonymous commenters or deceptive in other ways.  When it comes to using public resources, this is a good thing; monitoring IP addresses makes sure that we aren’t using government resources for inappropriate or illegal purposes, and I do believe that the public has every right to expect that.

Now, please keep in mind, I’m only speaking in relation to what public officials or employees do with publicly funded equipment.  I am NOT talking about the average citizen.  That being said, this entire episode is a lesson in transparency – IP addresses are easy to track – and that means the public can, to some extent, keep a better eye on the use of public resources.

What do you think?  Let me know in the comments, and don’t forget to subscribe to the weekly Email newsletter!

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