Your Privacy at the Heart of New White House ‘Big Data’ Report

May 1, 2014 3:01pm

Prompted by President Obama in his speech on surveillance practices in January, senior adviser John Podesta and his team have completed a White House review of “big data.”

The 85-page report focuses on consumers and businesses, also touching on citizens’ privacy from government, and it includes a handful of policy recommendations. From the report’s summary:

Advance the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. Consumers deserve clear, understandable, reasonable standards for how their personal information is used in the big data era. We recommend the Department of Commerce take appropriate consultative steps to seek stakeholder and public comment on what changes, if any, are needed to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, first proposed by the President in 2012, and to prepare draft legislative text for consideration by stakeholders and submission by the President to Congress.

Pass National Data Breach Legislation. Big data technologies make it possible to store significantly more data, and further derive intimate insights into a person’s character, habits, preferences and activities. That makes the potential impacts of data breaches at businesses or other organizations even more serious. A patchwork of state laws currently governs requirements for reporting data breaches. Congress should pass legislation that provides for a single national data breach standard, along the lines of the Administration’s 2011 Cybersecurity legislative proposal.

Extend Privacy Protections to non-U.S. Persons. Privacy is a worldwide value that should be reflected in how the federal government handles personally identifiable information about non-U.S. citizens. The Office of Management and Budget should work with departments and agencies to apply the Privacy Act of 1974 to non-U.S. persons where practicable, or to establish alternative privacy policies that apply appropriate and meaningful protections to personal information regardless of a person’s nationality.

Ensure Data Collected on Students in School Is Used for Educational Purposes. Big data and other technological innovations, including new online course platforms that provide students real time feedback, promise to transform education by personalizing learning. At the same time, the federal government must ensure educational data linked to individual students gathered in school is used for educational purposes, and protect students against their data being shared or used inappropriately.

Expand Technical Expertise to Stop Discrimination. The detailed personal profiles held about many consumers, combined with automated, algorithm-driven decision-making, could lead – intentionally or inadvertently – to discriminatory outcomes, or what some are already calling “digital redlining.” The federal government’s lead civil rights and consumer protection agencies should expand their technical expertise to be able to identify practices and outcomes facilitated by big data analytics that have a discriminatory impact on protected classes, and develop a plan for investigating and resolving violations of law.

Amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The laws that govern protections afforded to our communications were written before email, the Internet and cloud computing came into wide use. Congress should amend ECPA to ensure the standard of protection for online, digital content is consistent with that afforded in the physical world – including by removing archaic distinctions between email left unread or over a certain age.

Speaking at the Justice Department Jan. 17, Obama addressed the public outcry over NSA surveillance practices. During that speech, he called for this review, saying then:

“I have also asked my counselor, John Podesta, to lead a comprehensive review of big data and privacy.  And this group will consist of government officials who, along with the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, will reach out to privacy experts, technologists and business leaders, and look how the challenges inherent in big data are being confronted by both the public and private sectors; whether we can forge international norms on how to manage this data; and how we can continue to promote the free flow of information in ways that are consistent with both privacy and security.”

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