One more BNP thing – heatmaps replace pins, but Pandora's box is now open

One of the interesting debates that surrounded today’s story about the BNP was what to do with the data once it got out. So far it’s pretty clear that the names and addresses of members of the BNP are way out of bounds in a legal sense. The political party, whether you agree with its far-right, largely racist policies or not, is still considered legitimate by the authorities, even though members of the Police force are banned from becoming members. BNP members remain private citizens under the law. So taking the data from the list and mashing it up with Google maps is, to use a technical term, pretty damn dodgy.

Even more problematic is using the default Google Maps pin image, which literally pinpoints a spot on the map as being the house of a BNP member. Obscuring the location of the pin by moving it around turned out to put it slap bang onto someone’s house who almost certainly had nothing to do with the BNP, as the original mapper found. As I said on Twitter, I was starting to see some really evil shit being done with the BNP list (in terms of data mashups) and implored any geeks out there to think twice and stop.

The debate was also raging on the list run by MySociety, a non-governmental organisation which has built mashups using government data before, often sailing close to the law in the interests of creating more transparency to the democratic process. One poster said they should do a mashup, but the suggestion was convincingly slapped down by MySociety’s Tom Steinburg:

“…the moment you sacrifice the values and compromises that hold together liberal democracies (such as a presumption of innocence and a right to privacy for people who’ve not actually been convicted of crimes) for the sake of humiliating your political opponents, you’re starting on a path far more likely to result in ruination for us all than a bunch of marginal wing nuts.”

Aside from that, MySociety has stayed clear of the data not least because the Information Commissioner has yet to pronounce on its use. Anything anyone does in the meantime could probably mean fines, and maybe some sort of knee-jerk legislation. Most likely the ICO will recommend all copies of this data should be destroyed.

The trouble is, the data (or at least, what we think is the data) is already out there. It’s too late.

And ominously I hear it’s being added to. There are already whispers circulating that “amended” copies of the BNP member list are doing the rounds on Bitorrent. People are settling scores with neighbours by adding them to a bogus BNP list. The potential for abuse is sky-high.

Now there is yet another Google mashup map which has used the data, still illegally under the strict letter of the law. “John Doe” and his (or her?) crew at BNP Near Me have obscured the actual addresses and aggregated BNP members into clumps around the main postcodes.

So instead of saying, effectively, “A member of the BNP lives right on this spot, we think, so feel free to go harrass them,” the result is “X BNP members in this postcode district” with a smudged red circle rather than a pin.

Even The Guardian newspaper has now wayed-in with a mashup plotting the data against constituencies.

However, I think most would agree that the entire episode has opened a complex can of worms that will still be crawling around for weeks, possibly months and years to come.