White House Report Warns Of 'Big Data' Abuses

Image: A Google campus-network room at a data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
A Google campus-network room at a data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa.Connie Zhou / Google via AP file

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The White House has published the results of a 90-day inquiry into the benefits and challenges of "big data" in our increasingly information-driven era, addressing everything from tornado tracking to health care fraud.

The report (PDF), commissioned by President Barack Obama in January, looks at the many ways in which enormous collections of data, analyzed at unheard-of speeds, can contribute to better understanding of our world — or lead to dangerous invasions of privacy.

"It is very clear that data can improve our lives and create economic opportunity," said Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker in a conference call with reporters on Thursday.

"However, big data can also raise challenging questions about how we safeguard privacy and civil liberties," she continued.

To that end, the report offers six major policy recommendations:

  • A Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights that codifies what people can expect when opting in or out of data collection programs.
  • Stringent requirements on preventing and reporting data breaches.
  • Privacy protection for more than just U.S. citizens as a global gesture of good faith.
  • Ensure data collected in schools is used only for educational purposes.
  • Prevent big data from being used as a method of discrimination (so-called "digital redlining").
  • Update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) to be consonant with an age of cloud computing, mobile data, and email.

The report doesn't address the government's NSA surveillance programs, which some Americans have argued are the biggest threat to their digital privacy.

The White House said other efforts are looking at that issue. In March, the Obama administration announced details of its plan to end the government's vast bulk collection of data about phone calls made in the United States.

Thursday's "big data" report, administration officials said, was intended specifically to look at non-NSA data and privacy issues.

"We concerned ourselves with a full range of activities of both the government and private sector," lead report author John Podesta told reporters, "and think that privacy across that full range, including the intelligence community is important. But it was our task to really look at these other sectors."

Surveillance in the limelight

Kevin Bankston, policy director at analyst group the Open Technology Institute, praised several aspects of the report. But he took issue with the report’s lack of discussion of any of the issues raised by the NSA’s surveillance programs.

"Although today’s report is a helpful addition to ongoing discussions about consumer privacy and digital discrimination, it’s worth asking the question: in a post-Snowden world, with government spying at the top of the agenda for policymakers, Internet companies and advocates both here and around the globe, was this really the best way for the White House’s top tech policy minds to be spending the last three months?" he said in an OTI press release.

ACLU legislative counsel Chris Calabrese said he was fairly pleased overall with the report, particularly the idea of ECPA reform, which could help secure online communications. He also praised the "robust acknowledgement" of big data resulting in discriminatory practices, like police targeting neighborhoods or ethnicities based on "predictive analysis" of criminality.

"I don't think Americans are really aware of the extent to which predictive policing is going on right now," Calabrese said, pointing out efforts described in the report to "analyze a person's individual propensity to criminal activity."

"That's some very scary future-crime stuff," he continued. "There has to be a discussion about whether we're using data in a way that's unfair and contrary to our values."

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story referred to the report's lack of reference to the NSA as an omission, when in fact NSA-focused reviews are a separate, ongoing effort.