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1/21/17

US Environmental Data: Hackers downloaded US government climate data and stored it on European servers as Trump was being inaugurated

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.

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.

Read more: Hackers downloaded US government climate data and stored it on European servers as Trump was being inaugurated

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