White House report on big data and privacy: Too little, too late

With Facebook and Google cited by consumers as "worst abusers" of private data, is this week's White House report on big data and privacy -- and its discrimination concerns -- too little, too late?
Written by Violet Blue, Contributor on
White House big data

A review ordered by the Obama administration on big data and privacy, due this week, is expected to include warnings about data dealing's potential for abuse and discrimination, in issues from housing to hiring.

The report was assigned in January to White House counselor John Podesta in the blowback over government surveillance and NSA data collection practices.

Podesta wouldn't reveal details of his report to President Obama in yesterday's preliminary interview with the Associated Press, though Podesta told AP he had newfound "concern" over how big data "could be used to target consumers and lead to discriminatory practices."

But it may be too little, too late for millions of powerless consumers up against nonconsensual collection, use and sale of their personal information by online profiteers for decades.

Discrimination? You don't say.

As a current lawsuit illustrates, so-called "people search" website Spokeo’s data has been used for the very purposes Mr. Podesta suggests might be a "concern." A Virginia resident is suing Spokeo alleging that the company’s collection and for-profit peddling of erroneous personal information has harmed his attempt to find a job.

In 2011, an Associated Press investigation concluded that U.S. employers spend at least $2 billion a year on data dealers to check out their scraped, notoriously flawed profiles on potential employees.

Federal laws haven't caught up with the human data sales market, and the massive privacy and profiling problems it has created.

The White House is either late to the game -- or, as with exploit sales, a system with opportunistic holes hasn't been such a bad thing for defense.

Stalking victims, civil and privacy rights groups, targeted segments of the population, and even the Federal Trade Commission have been fighting sellers like Spokeo -- and losing the battle -- for years.

The FTC recently settled two cases with data brokers Checkmate and InfoTrack for selling consumer data to prospective employers and landlords in violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. In June 2012, Spokeo paid $800,000 to settle an FTC suit that alleged Spokeo illegally sold personal information.

Some privacy activists suggest we make public records less “public,” the way they were pre-Internet.

Others think that data dealers should be subjected to increased regulation, organization, oversight and accuracy checking.

These websites have typically inaccurate data about individuals and maintain public disclaimers against ensuring accuracy, in their self-immunization strategy stating that the Fair Credit Reporting Act doesn't apply to them.

As Justia wrote in February,

(...) data brokers are either unregulated, or claim that certain laws do not apply to them. If Spokeo were subject to the FCRA, as major data brokers such as Experian, Transunion, or Equifax are, then Spokeo would have to ensure that customers had notice if data that they furnished was used to make an adverse determination against a consumer in an employment or credit transaction.

In addition, consumers have certain statutory rights to see their data, and to correct that data if it is in error. Consumers get their credit report for free annually; Spokeo does not offer such a service.

You have to pay to see your own data.

These data dealers collect public information from social media websites, public records, advertising networks (ad trackers), as well as from companies and apps that sell, rent or trade "third party" data.

The difficulty in keeping personal information and events out of the hands of big data dealers can be seen in the lengths one woman just went through trying to hide her pregnancy from Facebook, Google and other online big data collectors.

Public perception: Facebook and Google seen as "worst abusers"

A recent survey of U.S. consumers Consumer Attitudes toward Transparency in Data Collection found that fewer than half considered their understanding of online data use as "good."

Yet consumers could definitely say who they don't trust when the survey asked respondents to pick winners and losers among major brands in terms of their protection and use of consumer data.

Adweek reported,

In both cases, the vast majority of people could not cite a single example, but among those who could, Amazon was listed as a positive role model and Facebook and Google were deemed the worst abusers.

It probably doesn't help that Google’s Eric Schmidt famously said, "If you have something you don’t want anyone to know, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place."

Actor and tech investor Ashton Kutcher and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg have each said that if you’re not doing anything “wrong” then you don’t have anything to worry about when it comes to losing your privacy.

That’s easy -- and profitable -- for them to say.

Everyone making the decisions about collecting and selling our private data are more able than the rest of us to hide things they consider private or embarrassing. They can afford it.

Not only that, but they're the ones who are wrong.

While the U.S. government gets ready to state the obvious later this week, and privacy profiteers dive into swimming pools of our personal data like Scrooge McDuck, telling us to stop sharing isn't the answer.

No one has to give up Facebook or get off the internet.

We just need to be smarter about how we share, and who we share with. Look, it's like this now: You get in a car, you put on a seat belt.

If we think about it like this, I think we might be able to stop worrying and start loving the Internet again.

Disclosure: My new book is about getting removed from "people search" sites and reducing the privacy risks of big data.


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