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May 5, 2014

Privacy Protections Needed as Big Data Advances, White House Says

George Leopold

The Obama administration continues to see big opportunities as well as potential pitfalls in big data. In a report released this week that addresses growing data privacy issues, administration officials also sought to link big data to the emerging “Internet of Things,” the network of devices able to communicate with each other.

“We are only in the very nascent stage of the so-called ‘Internet of Things,’ when our appliances, our vehicles and a growing set of “wearable” technologies will be able to communicate with each other,” the report states.

The big data being generated by the IoT is being driven by the Moore’s Law curve in which performance doubles every 18 to 24 months. Hence, the cost of creating and storing information is estimated to have dropped by as much as half since 2005, the report notes.

“What really matters about big data is what it does,” the report continues. “Aside from how we define big data as a technological phenomenon, the wide variety of potential uses for big data analytics raises crucial questions about whether our legal, ethical, and social norms are sufficient to protect privacy and other values in a big data world.”

The report also warned of “an asymmetry of power between those who hold the data and those who intentionally or inadvertently supply it.” “Big data analytics have the potential to eclipse longstanding civil rights protections in how personal information is used in housing, credit, employment, health, education, and the marketplace,” the report’s authors warned in a cover letter to President Obama. “Americans’ relationship with data should expand, not diminish, their opportunities and potential.”

Among the growing concerns about how big data is being used is a backlash against data brokers who sweep up and sell personal health information. The issue has been highlighted as a government-sponsored institute compiles a huge database of medical records intended to help patients and their doctors make better health care decisions. Critics worry that patients will lose even more control over their electronic medical records if they end up in a huge medical research database.

According to the report, “the technical capabilities of big data have reached a level of sophistication and pervasiveness that demands consideration of how best to balance the opportunities afforded by big data against the social and ethical questions these technologies raise.” Among the report’s policy recommendations for promoting big while protecting privacy rights are:

  • The Commerce Department should draft legislation for a “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights” after seeking comment from big data stakeholders and public commenters.
  • Establish single national data breach standard through “National Data Breach Legislation.”
  • Ensure that data collected on students is used only for educational, not commercial, purposes
  • Amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to ensure that standard protections for digital content is equal to protections afforded in the physical world.

The report found that there is also an inherent upside to big data technology. “Big data technologies also hold within them solutions that can enhance accountability, privacy, and the rights of citizens,” including “sophisticated methods of tagging data by the authorities under which it was collected or generated; purpose- and user-based access restrictions on this data; tracking which users access what data for what purpose; and algorithms that alert supervisors to possible abuses,” the report found. The big data report was released by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The big data panel was led by presidential counselor John Podesta. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy also released a fact sheet on the report’s recommendations.