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Tom Simonite

A View from Tom Simonite

White House to Examine Big Data Industry in a Post-Snowden Light

A new Presidential report will investigate how data collection and analysis affect everyday privacy.

  • January 23, 2014

A blog post released by the White House this afternoon suggests the fallout from leaker Edward Snowden’s disclosures last year about the National Security Agency’s widespread surveillance projects will spread far beyond questions about government monitoring.

A presidential working group is to examine how large-scale data collection and analysis by the private and public sectors for purposes outside of intelligence or law enforcement are affecting privacy. The goal is to identify areas in which new policies might be needed to restrain the technology and business of “big data” (a term that the White House post acknowledges is somewhat nebulous by linking to this MIT Technology Review post).

Snowden’s leaks didn’t say much directly about the creeping influence of such techniques in everyday life. But they certainly caused many people and businesses to be more aware of privacy issues of all kinds. It seems that similar thinking led President Obama to ask for this review, which he first mentioned publicly in last week’s speech about NSA surveillance (see “Obama Promises Reform of Phone Data Collection Program”).

John Podesta, a counselor to the President and formerly chief of staff to President Clinton, is to lead that effort, which will involve the secretaries of commerce and industry, and the President’s chief scientific and economic advisors. In his post, Podesta explains the need for the exercise like this:

“We are undergoing a revolution in the way that information about our purchases, our conversations, our social networks, our movements, and even our physical identities are collected, stored, analyzed and used. The immense volume, diversity and potential value of data will have profound implications for privacy, the economy, and public policy.”

Those issues and the power of businesses (see “What Facebook Knows”) and political campaigns (see “How Obama Used Big Data to Rally Voters”) using them has led researchers and industry figures to suggest that new forms of privacy protections are needed (see “Why Big Data Needs a Code of Ethical Practices”). Any such recommendations that result from the White House review will likely prove the most influential yet, whether or not they lead to new legislation being passed. Podesta says that group will recommend possible policy responses to the problems it turns up.

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