White House Urges Privacy Law Overhaul In 'Big Data' Review

The White House on Thursday backed a host of policy initiatives to better safeguard privacy in the age of “big data,” including a law to forge a single national standard for reporting data breaches, as it unveiled a report commissioned by President Barack Obama.

During a January speech outlining reforms to controversial U.S. surveillance tactics, Obama revealed that he had tapped a top adviser to review of the privacy challenges presented by so-called big data, a common name for the aggregation and analysis of large interconnected databases by the government and private companies.

John Podesta, the Obama adviser who spearheaded the review, presented the final report to the president on Thursday, and wrote in a blog post that the 90-day review highlighted the potential for big data analytics to result in “discriminatory outcomes,” providing an end-run around civil rights protections for housing, employment, credit and consumer markets.

“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 the practices we encourage in the public and private sector,” Podesta wrote, pointing to six specific policy recommendations to balance privacy with the emergence of big data technology.

The review noted that data breach reporting is currently covered by a “patchwork” of state laws, and urged Congress to pass a bill creating a single national standard similar to what was outlined in the Obama Administration’s 2011 cybersecurity legislative proposal.

Podesta also called on Congress to enact the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights unveiled by the White House two years ago, which lays out seven principles meant to promote increased notice, choice and transparency in the collection, use and storage of consumers' personal information. Before the president submits draft text of the bill to Congress, the U.S. Department of Commerce should seek comment from stakeholders and the public on potential changes to the bill of rights, according to the report.

Another recommendation from the review said that the federal government should find ways to extend its privacy protections to foreigners, asking the Office of Management and Budget to work with agencies to apply the Privacy Act of 1974 to non-U.S. citizens “where practicable.”

The report also noted that detailed data profiles on consumers, combined with “algorithm-driven decision-making,” can — whether on purpose or not — lead to discrimination, what some have termed “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,” Podesta wrote.

The final recommendations from the review proposed measures to make sure data collected on students is used strictly for educational purposes, and asked Congress to amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to bring its provisions up to date with advances in email, Internet and cloud storage technology.

Far from painting an entirely negative picture of big data, Podesta also hailed the benefits of the phenomenon. For example, he pointed to how a geospatial technology company called Esri is leveraging big data to create real-time maps that help emergency services respond to tornado outbreaks.

“The big data revolution presents incredible opportunities in virtually every sector of the economy and every corner of society,” Podesta wrote.

The push to assess the impact of big data on consumer privacy stems from the debate spurred by the release of secret documents that cast a harsh light on the National Security Agency’s surveillance methods, including its bulk collection of domestic phone records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

Categories: Technology & Privacy