New report seeks balance between big data benefits, privacy risks

Thursday - 5/1/2014, 4:47pm EDT

The White House released a new report today that aims to define how big data is changing government, industry and the private sector. It also looks at how the government can protect an individual's privacy during this time of rapid technological change.

In January, President Barack Obama tasked his counselor John Podesta to head up the The Big Data and Privacy Working Group (BDPWG), a 90-day review of big data and privacy, with the goal of determining how big data is impacting public policy, lawmaking and the standards by which the government handles privacy.

"It's not only possible to collect more data than ever, to store it indefinitely and with high fidelity and to crunch it at incredible speeds, it's affordable to do so," Podesta said, during an afternoon White House press call. "The kind of data collection we're talking about and the data analytics that are at the heart of this report would've been astronomically expensive just a few years ago."

Podesta added that data collection is occurring in a greater number of sources than ever before. In addition, big data algorithms are making automated decisions at speeds approaching real time.

"We're not just talking about browser cookies," he said. "We're talking about sensors in our homes, cities, wearable devices, that constantly collect and share information about our surroundings, our behavior, our health and our whereabouts."

The BDPWG also looked at what challenges big data presented in implementing the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

Beneficial technology presents real privacy concerns

While these rapidly advancing technologies provide services that may be desirable for consumers, they also raise real privacy concerns.

"Having looked at the power of big data, we also have to be vigilant about the kinds of decisions that are being being made automatically and the criteria they're based on," Podesta said. "Because if an algorithm is pulling from faulty original data sources, you're not going to get the right outcome. ... But big data raises big questions too about how we protect our privacy and other important values in a world where data collection is increasingly ubiquitous and where analysis is being conducted at speeds approaching real time."

One of BDPWG's significant findings was that big data analytics could lead to an increase in discriminatory outcomes and practices that would circumvent civil rights protections in areas like housing, credit and employment.

"No matter how quickly technology advances, it remains within our power to ensure that we both encourage innovation and protect our values through law, policy and practices we encourage into the private sector," Podesta said.

BDPWG, which was made up of senior government officials, including Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, the President's Science Adviser John Holdren and Economic Adviser Jeff Zients, met with academic researchers, privacy advocates, regulators, advertisers and members of the technology industry and civil rights groups.

In the end, BDPWG came up with six actionable policy recommendations

  • Advance the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

  • Pass National Data Breach Legislation. This would call for the establishment of a national data breach standard, similar to cybersecurity legislation proposed by the administration in 2011.

  • Extend Privacy Protections to non-U.S. Persons.

  • Ensure Data Collected on Students in School is used for Educational Purposes.

  • Expand Technical Expertise to Stop Discrimination.

  • Amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

One of the questions raised by the group was whether the notice and consent framework that a consumer uses to grant permission for the collection of personal data still allows individuals the ability to control their privacy as data is repeatedly shared among companies.

"In the course of listening to stakeholders, technology experts and others during this process, it's undeniable that big data challenges several of the key assumptions that underpin current privacy frameworks, especially around collection and use," said Commerce Secretary Pritzker, at the press call. "I believe these big data developments warrant consideration in the context of how to viably ensure privacy protection and what practical limits exist to the practice of notice and consent. The values of the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights are immutable and our efforts in the coming months will reflect that."

A review running parallel to BDPWG by the President's Council of Advisors and Technology (PCAST) released its own report Thursday. Part of that report's focus is on the notice and consent framework from a technological perspective.

As recommended in the BDPWG report, Pritzker said her department would be taking the lead in examining the issues around big data and their impact on the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.