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Tom Simonite

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Five Things Obama’s Big Data Experts Warned Him About

The rise of big data techniques poses risks to society that call for new laws, a White House report concludes

  • May 1, 2014

When President Obama spoke in January about reforming U.S. surveillance, he also asked a panel of experts to spend 90 days investigating the potential consequences of the use of technology that falls under the umbrella term “big data.” The 68-page report was published today and repeatedly emphasizes that big data techniques can advance the U.S. economy, government, and public life. But it also spends a lot of time warning of the potential downsides, saying in the introduction that:

“A significant finding of this report is that 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.”

Here are five specific things the report warns the president of:

1. Data on all of us is piling up fast in the hands of public and private sector organizations and can’t practically be clawed back.

“Data, once created, is in many cases effectively permanent … The technological trajectory, however, is clear: more and more  data will be generated about individuals and will persist under the control of others. Ensuring that data is secure is a matter of the utmost importance.”

2. Privacy laws are outdated. The primary legislation governing data privacy is the Privacy Act of 1974 and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. One problem the report raises is that these laws are hard to apply to data stored in the cloud.

“We will continually need to examine our laws and policy to keep pace with technology, and should consider how the protection of content data stored remotely, for instance with a cloud provider, should relate to the protection of content data stored in a home office or on a hard drive. This is true of emails, text messages, and other communications platforms, which over the past 30 years have become an important means of private personal correspondence, and are most often stored remotely.”

3. The way data is used to “personalize” prices, promotions, and access to financial services creates risks of discrimination against minority groups.

“The ability to more precisely target advertisements is of enormous value to companies … However, private-sector uses of big data must ensure vulnerable classes are not unfairly targeted. The increasing use of algorithms to make eligibility decisions must be carefully monitored for potential discriminatory outcomes for disadvantaged groups, even absent discriminatory intent.”

4. Efforts to make online ad tracking more transparent are a mess.

“Users, more often than not, do not understand the degree to which they are a commodity in each level of this marketplace … technologies to improve transparency and privacy choices online have been slow to develop, and for many reasons have not been used widely by consumers.”

5. Congress needs to enact new legislation. The report ends with six concrete policy proposals, two of which require action from Congress: updating the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act and passing a new law to set hard rules on how companies should respond to data breaches, such as that which saw details of 40 million credit and debit cards stolen.

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