White House Big Data Report Calls for Privacy Reforms

The White House released a report on big data in which it calls for an update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). The much-anticipated report comes at a time when there is a large scale debate going between technology, privacy, and civil rights.

The report “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values” focused on how the public and private sectors can maximize the benefits of big data while minimizing its risks. It highlights the importance of big data on the economy, health care, and energy sector. The report drew praise from technology groups for its adoption of big data analytics and how it is improving education, wasteful government spending, and help with the nation’s continuing economic recovery.

According to the report, the big data revolution will take hold across the entire government, not merely in departments and agencies that already have missions involving science and technology. The agencies that have not used big data technique have perhaps the most significant opportunity to harness big data to benefit the citizens they serve. The report gave an example of the Fraud Prevention System that helps identify the highest-risk health care providers for waste, fraud, and abuse in real time and has already stopped, prevented, or identified $115 million in fraudulent payments.

Call for Privacy and Other Reforms

The White House launched an action plan back in January surrounding the collection, availability, and use of big data and the growing use big data analytics and its potential impact on the future of privacy.

The report recommended government to work closely with senior privacy and civil liberties officials to reform privacy concerns raised by recent NSA saga. It also suggested prompt action on the consumer privacy bill of rights, pass national data breach legislation, amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, expand technical expertise to stop discrimination, ensure data collected on students is used for educational purposes and extend privacy protections to non-US persons.

The report says big data raises serious questions, too, about how we protect our privacy and other values in a world where data collection is increasingly ubiquitous and where analysis is conducted at speeds approaching real time. The notice and consent framework used by various agencies still allows meaningful control of privacy as data about us is increasingly used and reused in ways that could not have been anticipated when it was collected.

Big data raises other concerns, as well. One significant finding of the report was the potential for big data analytics to lead to discriminatory outcomes and to circumvent longstanding civil rights protections in housing, employment, credit, and the consumer marketplace.

One action item identified by the report is reforming the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which drew support from a number of technology groups, including TechAmerica and the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI).

An important finding of this review is that while big data can be used for great social good, it can also be used in ways that perpetrate social harms or render outcomes that have inequitable impacts, even when discrimination is not intended. It suggested that society must take steps to guard against these potential harms by ensuring power is appropriately balanced between individuals and institutions, whether between citizen and government, consumer and firm, or employee and business.

Positive Impact

While privacy safeguards are still a concern, the report finds big data could spell substantial breakthroughs in learning in future years. The ability to process and analyze large volumes of student data would lead to an increase in personalized teaching methods through network-enabled devices.

As the government continues to examine the collection and use of data, policymakers should restrain from acting unless there are specific, identified harms that cannot be addressed by the myriad of existing laws and regulations governing the use of information collected about consumers. The Obama administration was told it should make an effort to identify next big data analytics areas, which can provide the greatest impact to people.

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