White House Urges Big Data Privacy Legislation

The White House last week released a review of Big Data and privacy written by counselor John Podesta.

The report stems from President Obama’s January request to define for the administration what is new about the technologies in this space, how Big Data affects public policy, and how consumer privacy is affected by corporate use of Big Data.

The issue of privacy has been trending in public discourse since last year, when Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the U.S. government’s widespread online monitoring activities.

The White House report, however, focuses on monitoring and data collection activities in the private sector — for example, the collection and use of consumer data by companies such as Facebook and Google.

The report makes note of the advances Big Data offers society, such as the prevention of Medicare fraud or, in the case of the war in Afghanistan, the ability to find and destroy improvised explosive devices.

The Dark Side

It illustrates the dark side as well, such as the possibility of companies targeting ads or loan offers based on demographics gathered via Big Data. The report told of one study that “found Web searches involving black-identifying names (e.g., ‘Jermaine’) were more likely to display ads with the word ‘arrest’ in them than searches with white-identifying names (e.g., ‘Geoffrey’).”

The cited research does not explain why a racially biased result occurred, “recognizing that ad display is algorithmically generated based on a number of variables and decision processes,” the White House report notes.

Congress Must Act

The report ends with a nod to the usefulness of Big Data, as well as the recognition that some safeguards must be put in place. It urges Congress to pass several measures including National Data Breach legislation, a Consumer Bill of Privacy Rights and an amendment to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

Many in the industry are coming around to the notion that some legislation makes sense. The question is how to craft the right balance of privacy rights while still allowing leeway for innovation.

“As the proliferation and use of Big Data increases, so does fear and misunderstanding,” Mark Parker, senior product manager at iSheriff, told the E-Commerce Times.

Members of the retail industry, perhaps because they have had to confess to so many wide-scale breaches, are particularly cognizant of this.

“Retailers are concerned about how to approach a customer once the data is analyzed — the ‘creep factor’ is not lost on retailers — and the industry, be it retailer or data analysts, is working to find answers,” Samer Forzley, VP of marketing at Pythian, told the E-Commerce Times.

Slowing Innovation

That said, those same advocates also want to see measures put in place that do not stifle product development.

While it’s important to keep private information private, it’s also important that legislation does not put undue costs, or onerous processes and procedures on the use and storage of Big Data, Parker added.

“The next 10 years will provide explosive growth around the use of Big Data, across industries,” Parker said. “It is extremely important that we don’t stifle innovation with broad reaching reactionary legislation that doesn’t take the future and the big picture into account.”

An Incremental Approach

The White House report itself does not appear to suggest anything that would lead to such a radical outcome. The suggestions the report makes are an incremental approach to reforming the law, which is wholly appropriate given the disconnect between legislation and tech advancements, said Paul Bond, a partner in Reed Smith’s data security, privacy and management practice.

“Washington, D.C., is at least a lap behind Silicon Valley,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “Official reports like this, intended to look into the future, are more like informed afterthoughts,” Bond maintained. “By the time policymakers have a firm grasp on the Big Data issues of 2014, it will be 2016 — and the White House will have a new occupant.”

Erika Morphy has been writing about technology, finance and business issues for more than 20 years. She lives in Silver Spring, Md.

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