White House outlines big data opportunities, dangers in 85-page report

The lengthy deep dive concludes with six actionable policy recommendations to both encourage and protect innovation in the public and private sectors.

Image: U.S. Government/White House

The notion that big data is a double-edged sword might be obvious to astute technology industry followers. Yet it has taken unprecedented events such as the Target security breach and the National Security Agency revelations for the subject to move to the forefront of the national agenda.

The Obama Administration is taking a firmer stance on the hot topic with the publication of an 85-page report outlining both the opportunities and challenges presented by the next wave of technology. The findings concern uses by and affects on government agencies, businesses, and individual citizens alike.

The deep dive is the result of a 90-day review of big data and privacy, commissioned by President Obama in January.

John Podesta, a counselor to the President who spearheaded the project, explained more about the research process on the official White House blog on Friday morning, outlining consults with academic researchers, privacy advocates, regulators, advertisers and civil rights groups, among others.

He noted some of the more positive, even more familiar, potential outcomes from big data, such as predictive analytics that have changed the face of healthcare and business.

But there were many other concerns revealed as well, including "one significant finding," as described by Podesta, suggesting "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."

Podesta wrote:

There are a few technological trends that bear drawing out. The declining cost of collection, storage, and processing of data, combined with new sources of data like sensors, cameras, and geospatial technologies, mean that we live in a world of near-ubiquitous data collection. All this data is being crunched at a speed that is increasingly approaching real-time, meaning that big data algorithms could soon have immediate effects on decisions being made about our lives.

Thus, the report concludes with six actionable policy recommendations to both encourage and protect innovation in the public and private sectors.

Here's an overview:

  • Amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to ensure a standard of protection for digital content consistent with those in the physical world (i.e. "removing archaic distinctions between email left unread or over a certain age")
  • Pass legislation for a single national data breach standard along the lines of the Administration's 2011 Cybersecurity legislative proposal.
  • Advance the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights
  • Extend privacy protections to non-U.S. citizens   
  • Ensure data collected about students is used only for improving educational outcomes
  • Expand technical expertise to stop the discriminatory impact on protected classes

For a look at the complete report, scroll through the document below:

White House Big Data Privacy Report May 1 2014