Yesterday the White House released a much-anticipated report titled Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values, the culmination of a 90-day big data review ordered by President Obama and led by senior White House advisor John Podesta.
The report provides a broad overview of privacy concerns raised by big data. There is great promise in big data, which will help society solve countless problems that can only be solved with enormous datasets. But big data also raises new problems that policymakers did not anticipate when they constructed existing privacy protections were constructed. Examining healthcare, education, financial services, social media, online communications, and mobile device use, the White House report describes some of these new problems that call into question the sufficiency of existing protections.
Notably, the White House calls for an important update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, or “ECPA.” Public Knowledge participated in a Day of Action last December to drive signatures on a White House petition asking the White House to support this update. The petition soared past the 100,000 signatures needed to garner an official response. And just earlier this week, Public Knowledge joined with other groups on a letter pushing for urging the White House to support strong ECPA reform without a carve-out for agencies. In a major victory for the public, the White House report agrees that ECPA is outdated, refers to one aspect of the law as “archaic,” and urges Congress to act.
The White House also highlights the concern that “data analytics may lead to disparate inequitable treatment, particularly of disadvantaged groups, or create such an opaque decision-making environment that individual autonomy is lost in an impenetrable set of algorithms,” an issue raised by Public Knowledge working with other groups. Public Knowledge is a signatory to the Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data, which provide a roadmap for policymakers and companies committed to protecting disadvantaged communities from the type of high-tech discrimination that big data could facilitate.
As communications technology develops, privacy protections have struggled to keep up. This report represents an important first step toward bringing outdated privacy protections up to date with rapidly changing technology.