White House Big Data Report Earns Praise, Skepticism
Tech experts say the administration is wise to call for statutory protections for data in the cloud. But some advocacy groups say overregulation will have a chilling effect on innovation.
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A White House report on big data released May 1 concludes that the explosion of data in today's world can be an unprecedented driver of social progress, but it also has the potential to eclipse basic civil rights and privacy protections.
The report drew praise from business and technology groups for its grasp of how big data analytics could improve education and healthcare, uncover wasteful government spending, and help with the nation's continuing economic recovery. But those same groups cautioned that government attempts to regulate data collection could interfere with productivity and job growth.
"Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values" recommended that the president take a number of steps, including directing government agencies to work closely with their senior privacy and civil liberties officials to examine how they might harness big data to carry out their missions. It also suggested agencies experiment with pilot projects, nurture in-house talent, and expand research and development.
In addition, the report recommends that the administration take prompt action to do the following:
Advance the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.
Pass national data breach legislation.
Extend privacy protections to non-US persons.
Ensure data collected on students is used for educational purposes.
Expand technical expertise to stop discrimination.
Amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
The recommendations are part of an 85-page report delivered to President Obama, who asked his counselor John Podesta in January to form a working group to address the opportunities and impact of big data. Podesta's working group included the secretaries of commerce and energy, the directors of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Economic Council, and others tasked with studying big data and recommending executive branch action or legislative proposals to Congress.
"Big data is saving lives … making the economy work better… and saving taxpayer dollars," Podesta said in a May 1 White House blog post, noting how it helped the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services identify $115 million in fraudulent payments. "But big data raises serious questions, too, about how we protect our privacy and other values in a world where data collection is increasingly ubiquitous and where analysis is conducted at speeds approaching real time."
In particular, the report raised concerns about whether the "notice and consent" framework, in which users grant permission for a service to collect and use information about them, "still allows us to meaningful control our privacy as data about us is increasingly used and reused in ways that could not have been anticipated when it was collected."
A White House poll, which is open for general public input but is not statistically representative of US opinions, found that high percentages of the 24,092 respondents expressed concerns about privacy.
The report calls for a dramatic increase in research and development in privacy-enhancing technologies, recommending that the administration spearhead an effort to identify areas where big data analytics can have the greatest influence in improving Americans' lives.
To achieve this, the report recommends that the Office of Science and Technology Policy work to define areas that promise significant public gains and then direct the necessary resources to those areas. Basic research should address data provenance, de-identification, and encryption.
In addition, the administration and Congress should strive to ensure that the nation's privacy values at home and abroad are protected, prevent new modes of discrimination that might come about through the use of big data, and ensure that law enforcement and national security agencies use big data in a responsible way that respects privacy.
"An important finding of this review is that while big data can be used for great social good, it can also be used in ways that perpetrate social harms or render outcomes that have inequitable impacts, even when discrimination is not intended," the report states. "Society must take steps to guard against these potential harms by ensuring power is appropriately balanced between individuals and institutions, whether between citizen and government, consumer and firm, or employee and business."
According to the report, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act is outdated and was crafted several decades ago,
William Welsh is a contributing writer to InformationWeek Government. He has covered the government IT market since 2000 for publications such as Washington Technology and Defense Systems. View Full Bio
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