White House Releases Report On ‘Big Data’ And It’s Effects On Privacy

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
Font Size:

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.”

Google’s Eric Schmidt and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg were among some of the meetings that included Obama, during which privacy advocates expressed the need for users to be aware of the activity data companies keep track of – especially in cases where it can be used for discrimination. Technological advances like governments’ and companies’ ability to track consumers through devices like smartphones were also examined.

“The report rightfully highlights the potential for limiting our choices or discriminating based on broad assumptions from a data set,” Center for Democracy and Technology President Nuala O’Connor said in a press release following the report.

“A stronger focus on personal control would empower individuals and engender trust in Big Data applications. Accounting for privacy in the collection, analysis, and final output of data will help generate the positive solutions we all want.”

The report wasn’t entirely against the use of Big Data, however, and pointed out the extreme benefits to society posed by analyzing and drawing conclusions from such huge collections of data including saving lives, optimizing the economy and efficiently spending and saving taxpayer dollars.

“The most important takeaway is that our privacy really does matter when it comes to Big Data. Analyzing mass amounts of personal data certainly holds great potential for innovative services and better social outcomes,” O’Connor said.

“In light of the continuing proliferation of ways to collect and use information about people, PCAST [President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology] recommends that policy focus primarily on whether specific uses of information about people affect privacy adversely,” PCAST wrote in a parallel report.

“It also recommends that policy focus on outcomes, on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how,’ to avoid becoming obsolete as technology advances.”

Mozilla Global Privacy and Public Policy Lead Alex Fowler said in statement that the report was only a first step toward a broader examination of Big Data in contemporary society.

“The U.S. government’s view of Big Data has been mired in 20th Century thinking, and must evolve to balance Big Data’s socially beneficial uses with recognition of today’s privacy and security realities,” Fowler said. “We’re glad to see the report touch on this, though as we indicated in our comments to the White House, this is only the beginning of a longer discussion.”

“In the meantime, we strongly urge the Obama administration to stay focused on surveillance reform to help restore trust on the Internet.”

Follow Giuseppe on Twitter and Facebook