What a terrible Sunshine Week.
Founded in 2002, Sunshine Week is celebrated each year in the interest of a simple philosophy: “Open government is good government.”
Journalists, activists and supporters of government transparency use this week to commend the strides made for open government, criticize the backslides and lobby for more change.
In a country founded on the idea that government derives its powers from the consent of the governed, who can argue with increased transparency? The only hope for an effective democracy is an educated citizenship and an open government.
While sunshine laws, like the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act, are not a part of the U.S. Constitution, they are just as central to the health of our democracy.
In the past, government officials have celebrated Sunshine Week alongside advocates, but not this year. This year’s Sunshine Week brought headlines so ironic, I checked to make sure it wasn’t April Fools Day,.
“A Police Gadget Tracks Phones? Shhh! It’s a Secret,” read the front page of the New York Times last Monday.
The article detailed, as much as possible, a new surveillance tool being purchased by local police departments across the country, to the tune of $500,000 a piece.
The tool, which is being referred to as “Sting Ray” or “KingFish,” comes with a nondisclosure agreement that prevents law enforcement officials from saying anything about the technology, because, according to the FBI, sharing the information with the public would allow criminals to protect themselves from it. This makes it difficult to know exactly which departments have purchased it and what they’re using it for.
What we do know about the technology is terrifying. It consists of a small device that can fit inside a suitcase and works like a cellphone tower, intercepting cell signals. Its main use is to track the location of cellphones, but it can also scan every phone in the surrounding area and collect texts, calls, emails and other data.
Later in the week, the sunshine dimmed further, as the White House announced it was eliminating a federal regulation that subjects its Office of Administration to FOIA, a law that gives citizens the right to examine government records. The Office of Administration is responsible for all White House record-keeping duties, including the archiving of emails.
Only two days after this announcement the Associated Press reported that the Obama administration had set a new record for censoring government files, or refusing access to them under FOIA last year.
A record 714,231 FOIA requests were made for information, and the government only responded to 647,142. For the other 215,584, the administration said it couldn’t find the records, or refused to comply.
Where is the anger that flooded the American populous when Edward Snowden made his revelations about government secrecy and invasion of citizens’ privacy? Have people just given up, or is it because these headlines came in a smaller font size, below the fold.
The people deserve better from their government. They deserve truth and integrity. They deserve a government that realizes its existence is to serve them, to answer to them.
The people deserve sunshine, but they must demand it.