What does this have to do with Semantics, other than Sir Alec having a "Sir Tim Number" of two by virtue of having met the same Monarch? Let's have a look at a common but counter-intuitive problem that we see in many large data management arenas.
A government agency publicizes a great deal of unclassified information about its members, activities, contacts, etc. This information is provided as a public or organizational service, for any eyes to see.
Then someone notices that if you cross-reference this information together, that a profile comes up of certain individuals, groups, activities, or what-not. This profile has a value that goes beyond the sum of its parts; a value so dangerous, in fact, that it is classified as being for Secret Eyes Only.
How can this be? How can a conclusion that anyone can draw from information that anyone can see be classified as viewable only by a select few? Doesn't this contradict something that we know about reasoning and information?
A simple example of this comes from everyday life. A few decades ago, one found telephone numbers in a city by looking at a very large paper book, sorted alphabetically by the phone subscriber's last name. This was called a "telephone book", and every year a complimentary copy was provided to every phone subscriber. The information was completely public and disseminated.
Rumour had it, however, that there was another telephone book - something called the "reverse phone book". This book had the same subscriber information, the same phone numbers, names, addresses. It differed from the regular phone book in only one way - it was sorted by telephone number. So you could take a number scrawled on a bathroom wall, and find out whom it belonged to. The same rumour claimed that access to this book was heavily restricted; only police detectives and the FBI had access to a copy.
The information itself was not restricted, only the way in which it was organized. Anyone could take their own phone book, and sort it numerically. But this was technologically impractical, so the restricted secrets of the reverse phone book were safe.
As information technology advances, this "security by intractability" solution is failing. Just as the case of the textile industry in the movie, the real question is how the entrenched information culture will respond to the change.
In the case of the reverse phone book, the story did not end the same way. Rather than resisting the new technology, the ideas about the availability of the information changed. It is now possible to hit a web page that allows anyone in the world to perform a search that once was in the purvue only of law enforcement oficers.
But the story doesn't have such a happy ending in other places. The promise of the semantic web is that it will allow information to be gathered from multiple sources and seamlessly integrated into a coherent whole. What does this mean for the public information silos, whose integration is restricted?
We already have an indication that the Semantic Web story will parellel Sir Alec's story. Jen Golbeck recounts the story of Plink, in which a semantic application succeeded in combining information from multiple sources, engraging the people to whom that information belonged. Yes, every piece was freely published on the web, but the amalgamated whole contained connections that were not welcome. Just like Sidney Stratton, Plink ended unhappily. Unlike Stratton, the technology did not fail at the last minute, and Plink became a casualty of the angry mob.
We have already seen in some of our government clients a foreclosure of this situation. Even with the modest successes of information integration available today in shared taxonomies and web indices, government agencies have taken the opposite approach to the one we have seen with the reverse phone book; that is, if we can't stop the man in the street from amalgamating our unclassified data into restricted results, then we have no choice but to regard all of our data as restricted.
Is there another solution? Perhaps there is - the Semantic Web itself provides a suggestion of a solution in the form of the Policy Aware Web. We no longer have a black-and-white model of publishing information; instead, we make information dissemination into a rule-mediated process in which access to information is governed by explicit policies. That solution isn't finished, and has a long way to go before it can give information owners the warm-fuzzy feeling they need about the security of their information. But it is a start. It is a key effort that could protect Sir Tim's vision from going the way of Sir Alec's.