Big Data: The White House is Thinking About it, You Should Too

Big Data: The White House is Thinking About it, You Should Too

The White House recently released a report on big data. While it was highly anticipated by people who closely follow data privacy issues, chances are that it wasn't on the radar of most individuals.  Even so, we believe it is an issue that everybody should start thinking about.


Why is big data a significant privacy challenge?

As technology advances so does the ability to collect, combine, and analyze data.  This is relevant to individuals because, as the report states, "the volume of information that people create themselves…pales in comparison to the amount of digital information created about them each day."

Individuals often aren’t aware when information about them is collected and used. They may not know who has data associated with them, who that data may be shared with, and whether there are any choices or protections in place (in many instances there are not). 

In addition, it is difficult to predict how this information may be used in a way that impacts someone’s life – for better or worse.


Why is the White House big data report important?

Time will tell whether direct policy action results from the report.  However, it is a thoughtful contribution to recent privacy discussions, and does a good job of addressing both the potential benefits and risks of big data. 


What privacy-related issues does the report address?

The report addresses risks associated with the government as well as the private sector. 

  • Big data can be used as a tool to help law enforcement protect citizens, but also for ubiquitous surveillance.
  • Educational institutions can use data to improve learning, but others might use the same information to build unexpected profiles on students.
  • Big data can serve as a tool to improve healthcare, but current law may not protect the privacy of the information generated. 
  • The data services industry, or “data brokers,” collects data from many sources to aggregate and/or analyze and then sell or share with others, but these companies rarely interact with consumers. Some data brokers are regulated, but many are not.
  • Companies can use data to tailor ads and products more effectively, but they can also use it to exploit and discriminate against vulnerable populations.

What does the report recommend?

The report makes six policy recommendations to the Administration.

What does Privacy Rights Clearinghouse think of the recommendations?

We generally support the recommendations.  However, when it comes to national data breach legislation, we worry about its potential to undermine many of the strong state laws that already exist. 

We also agree with others who have pointed out that the report focuses too much on limiting data use rather than providing individuals with increased transparency and control over data collection. 


Where can you learn more about privacy and the White House big data report?

In addition to the report, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a study on technological trends surrounding big data.

Many organizations that work on privacy issues have written blog posts about the issue and the report, including (but not limited to) the ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), Center for Democracy and Technology  (CDT), and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

If you have additional questions or comments, feel free to get in touch with us!