The White House on Thursday released its long-awaited “Big Data Report” detailing how the bulk collection, storage and use of millions of Americans private information by the tech industry affects citizens’ privacy and security.
According to the report, allowing government and major corporations access to enormous amounts of quantifiable and analytical private data on millions of Internet consumers has the potential to ”alter the balance of power between government and citizen,” and create ”new modes of discrimination.”
Authored by a team led by White House counselor John Podesta, who also heads President Obama’s open-debate data privacy workshops, the report is a follow-up to remarks made by Obama two years ago calling for a consumer data “bill of rights” to protect users when companies collect and use data drawn from their online activity.
After Obama’s initiative was interrupted by the leak of highly classified National Security Agency bulk surveillance programs by former agency contractor Edward Snowden last year, the White House was forced to shift its focus to reforming the legal standards and surveillance practices of the government in Big Data before scrutinizing Silicon Valley’s.
The Thursday report recommended putting the bill of rights back on the table along with congressional national data breach legislation, an extension of online privacy protection to non-U.S. citizens and an update to the electronic communications privacy act, which outlines the terms for government access to email.
While much of the discussion over Big Data over the last year has focused on the NSA – including White House and congressional efforts to reform the agency – Thursday’s report examines the use of Big Data gathered from users of tech giants like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo! etc. Many of of those companies have escaped recent scrutiny thanks to the past year’s worth of headline-grabbing government surveillance revelations, despite engaging in similar practices to sell user data for profit and assisting the NSA themselves.
Podesta’s team along with Obama met with hundreds of industry stakeholders, civil liberties advocates and tech company heads during the 90-day review, which revealed among other things how bulk-data collection can be used to discriminate against applicants for health care, employment, credit and housing.
“A nuanced debate about the costs and benefits of Big Data is necessary,” Computer and Communications Industry Association President and CEO Ed Black said in response to the report Thursday.
“It is easy to focus only on negative anecdotes and one-off horror stories, even while the positive benefits of better data collection and analysis are so pervasive that they often escape news coverage and do not feature prominently in political rhetoric,” Black said. “We are glad that the report acknowledges the many benefits of big data, as well as policy challenges.”