RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment
Print

Schlanger writes: "As Donald Trump was sworn into office as the new president of the US on Jan. 20, a group of around 60 programmers and scientists were gathered in the Department of Information Studies building at the University of California-Los Angeles, harvesting government data."

They're archiving everything. (photo: Quartz)
They're archiving everything. (photo: Quartz)


Hackers Downloaded US Government Climate Data and Stored It on European Servers as Trump Was Being Inaugurated

By Zoë Schlanger, Quartz

22 January 17

 

s Donald Trump was sworn into office as the new president of the US on Jan. 20, a group of around 60 programmers and scientists were gathered in the Department of Information Studies building at the University of California-Los Angeles, harvesting government data.

A spreadsheet detailed their targets: Webpages dedicated to the Department of Energy’s solar power initiative, Energy Information Administration data sets that compared fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, and fuel cell research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, to name a few out of hundreds.

Many of the programmers who showed up at UCLA for the event had day jobs as IT consultants or data managers at startups; others were undergrad computer science majors. The scientists in attendance, including ecologists, lab managers, and oceanographers, came from universities all over Southern California. A motley crew of data enthusiasts who assemble for projects like this is becoming something of a trend at universities across the country: Volunteer “data rescue” events in Toronto, Philadelphia, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Michigan over the last few weeks have managed to scrape hundreds of thousands of pages off of EPA.gov, NASA.gov, DOE.gov, and whitehouse.gov, uploading them to the Internet Archive. Another is planned for early February at New York University.

Hackers, librarians, scientists, and archivists had been working around the clock, at these events and in the days between, to download as much federal climate and environment data off government websites as possible before Trump took office. But suddenly, at exactly noon on Friday as Trump was sworn in, and just as the UCLA event kicked off, some of their fears began to come true: The climate change-related pages on whitehouse.gov disappeared. It’s typical of incoming administrations to take down some of their predecessor’s pages, but scrubbing all mentions of climate change is a clear indication of the Trump administration’s position on climate science.

“We’re having a heart attack,” said Laurie Allen on Friday afternoon. Allen is the assistant director for digital scholarship in the University of Pennsylvania libraries and the technical lead on a recent data-rescuing event there. “In the last four days I think we’ve been working 22 hours a day, because we were hearing that these precise changes were going to happen.”

“I wish we had been wrong about our concerns. But this is what we internally had predicted and prepared for,” added Bethany Wiggin, the director of the environmental humanities program at Penn and another organizer of the data-rescuing event.

Over the first 100 days of the new administration, a volunteer team of programmers will be scanning government websites and comparing them to the archived, pre-Trump versions, to check for changes. “We’ll be letting people know what the changes exactly are. We hope to produce a weekly report on changes,” Wiggin says, perhaps in the form of a newsletter.

While Wiggin and Allen say the changes to whitehouse.gov are disconcerting, they also note they are small potatoes compared with what could come next: the large government data sets related to climate change and environmental health that scientists use for research. For example, there’s a massive Environmental Protection Agency database of air quality monitoring data that might become a target of Trump-appointed EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s office, based on Pruitt’s history of suing the EPA to roll back air pollution regulations.

That’s where the data rescuing hackathons come in: The volunteer programmers at each event have been writing custom scripts to harvest the bigger, more complicated federal data sets, too. And they’re sharing the scripts with each other. “These events build onto each other. We might use tools that were built at other events,” says Irene Pasquetto, one of the organizers of the UCLA event.

Large data sets are being organized and uploaded to datarefuge.org, a website based on a version of the open-source data portal software Ckan, customized by Allen. All the various data-rescue hackathons are using the site for data storage, and hope it will act as an alternative repository for pre-Trump federal information during the new administration.

There will, thanks to Michael Riedyk, CEO of the Canadian data-archiving company Page Freezer, also be a copy stored outside the US.

The night before the inauguration, Riedyk was reading an article online about the Penn data-rescuing event, and thought it wouldn’t hurt also host that data in a second location, and he had just the spot in mind. His company offered monthly subscriptions to companies and government agencies who wanted their web pages archived on a daily basis. Plus, it had servers in Europe.

“We built this huge archiving cloud that crawls websites to preserve them, either to comply with regulation or for legal protection,” Riedyk says. “I thought, wow, we have that complete infrastructure in place.” So Riedyk got in touch with Wiggin, who helped organize the Philadelphia event, and offered his services for free. “I said, ‘We can archive these for you, and figure out how to open up to the public later.’”

Wiggin sent him back 30,000 science-related government web pages and the domain names of 150 complete websites that participants in data-rescue events had identified as possibly under threat by the new administration, or of vital use to researchers.

By the next day, shortly after Trump took office, Riedyk’s team was almost done. “We’ve captured a significant portion,” he says. “I expect we’ll have everything on that list by today or tomorrow.”

From there, his company will use web crawlers to scan each page on a weekly basis. Page Freezer’s proprietary software will allow them to see if anything changes. “We have all kinds of really cool tools to highlight what changed—we can see exactly how people have edited or deleted.” So if the Trump administration alters a page on, say, a US Environmental Protection Agency website, Page Freezer will know.

Page Freezer has three data centers, one in the US, one in Europe, and one in Canada; the US government data will be archived on their European servers. “That’s where we had most of our capacity available right now,” Riedyk says. But it could also put the information out of reach of the US government: In a 2016, a US appeals court ruled that Microsoft did not have to turn over to the Department of Justice a customer’s emails that were stored on a server in Dublin, Ireland. The second circuit court said that warrants obtained under the Stored Communications Act, which governs electronic records, are limited to searches within US borders. That’s not to say the law would not be challenged again, but having a copy of these key scientific datasets stored in Europe should make getting rid of them much more difficult.

Meanwhile, as more and more “data rescuing” events bubble up across the country, the work is getting easier, says Britt Paris, a PhD student at UCLA and another organizer of the event there. Strategies for workflow and data-scraping best-practices are being handed down, one event to the other. “I feel like we have a lot of support, like we’re part of a wider network,” Paris said. “There’s a sense of going forward together.”


e-max.it: your social media marketing partner
 

Comments   

A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

 
+7 # Dust 2017-01-22 09:32
I would assume that Trump's administration would either try to simply delete massive data sets painstaikingly gathered over decades, or worse, go into the data and deliberately change them.
 
 
+17 # DongiC 2017-01-22 10:19
The computer boys are doing magnificent work rescueing all kinds of data to be used in future research. My question is why is this being done? Have the Republicans lost their sanity? We are moving into advanced global warming. We should be going to crisis level not destroying vital information. I can hardly believe that the cabnet is loaded with deniers; it's as though the Republicans want to bring the whole nation down and the President just doesn't give a damn.
 
 
+8 # Stillfrazzeled 2017-01-22 14:19
Yup, the "computer BOYs Bethany, Laurie, Irene and maybe even Britt ARE doing a bang up job! Thanks LADIES AND boys!!! THAT'S WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE….LET'S KEEP IT!
 
 
+1 # Texas Aggie 2017-01-22 18:33
They never had any sanity to lose. The republican war on science has been waged since before St. Ronald of Alzheimer's and they have only intensified it after the religious fundies took over the party.
 
 
+23 # dotlady 2017-01-22 11:12
Cheers to everyone doing this work - we are grateful that these archivists had the foresight and are taking the time to save this knowledge, so hard won.
 
 
+1 # elizabethblock 2017-01-22 18:38
And what a pity that they have to do it.
 
 
+4 # Stillfrazzeled 2017-01-22 14:08
RE: DongiC…YUP, those "computer BOYS", Laurie, Bethany and Irene ARE doing "magnificent work"! THANK YOU LADIES!!! And gentlemen!!!
 
 
0 # DongiC 2017-01-22 19:12
I used the colloquial "boys"; Mea culpa, mea culpa. Many, many thanks to the girls as well. I am sure that future generations will call you all blessed.
 
 
+1 # Activista 2017-01-22 20:44
Saving data, democracy and information - we should establish a government in exile while dictator Trump is in power.
 

THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.

RSNRSN