NSA-related guilt or genuine desire to fuel a Big Data economy? Whichever is the reality, the White House is backing changes to the law, including the currently stalled-in-Congress Electronic Privacy Communications Act, which would offer protection for email and other data stored in the cloud.
To be fair, the Obama administration first laid out its Big Data ambitions back in 2012, well before NSA registered as more than a naughty precondition on a singles ad (look it up!).
At the launch of the Big Data Research and Development Initiative in March of that year, Obama talking about an “all hands on deck” effort from both the government and private sector.
By January of this year however, with Edward Snowden safely ensconced in Moscow and European Commission officials after blood, Obama commissioned his Counselor John Podesta to lead a 90-day review of Big Data and privacy as what was pitched as a scoping exercise to maximize benefits and minimize risk.
The review consulted internet companies, such as Google and Facebook, as well as academics, advertising agencies, legal experts, civil rights groups and intelligence agencies.The results of that review emerged a few days ago, ironically first appearing as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose phone was famously bugged by the NSA, flew into the US to meet Obama. Whether she read the review or not, there is much within it to crack a smile even on a German politician’s face.
On the White House blog, Podesta’s explained some of the thinking behind the review’s conclusions:
The Big Data revolution presents incredible opportunities in virtually every sector of the economy and every corner of society.
Big Data raises other concerns, as well. One significant finding of our review 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.
These concerns were highlighted elsewhere in a White House fact sheet:
- Big Data tools can alter the balance of power between government and citizen.
- Big Data tools can reveal intimate personal details.
- Big Data tools could lead to discriminatory outcomes.
With that in mind, there are six main recommendations:
- Pursue the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, first proposed by Obama in 2012 to set standards for how tech companies can use consumers' private information.
- Create National Data Breach legislation in the form of a national reporting law so consumers can know right away if their security has been threatened.
- Ensure data collected on students is only used for education purposes.
- Expand ability to detect data discrimination, such as automated "digital redlining."
- Amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to reflect the principle that the same privacy afforded American citizens in the physical world is extended to the digital world.
- Extend US privacy protections to non-US citizens either by applying the Privacy Act of 1974 to non-citizens, or developing a new system of protecting the privacy of foreigners, such as Mrs Merkel.
While the Chancellor might approve of the non-US citizen extension, the review hasn’t gone down entirely well for domestic consumption.
Mike Hettinger, senior vice president for federal government affairs and public sector at TechAmerica, the technology industry lobby group, said:
“For the last several years, the technology industry has worked hand-in-hand with this Administration to promote policies and research that maximize the societal benefits of Big Data to empower citizens, improve healthcare, and reduce waste and fraud.
“We appreciate the report’s focus on the overall benefits that the effective use of Big Data can achieve but are somewhat confused as to why the administration has also focused on hypothetical concerns about the use of data. This creates uncertainty in the minds of Americans about a technology that has so much potential.”
Meanwhile the Center for Digital Democracy said:
“The report failed to identify the commercial surveillance complex that has been put in place by Google, Facebook, and many other data-driven businesses.
“Indeed, we are concerned that the report may give a green light to expanded data collection, where the principle is 'collect first and worry about privacy and consumer protection later'."
Not exactly a root and branch revolution, more a cautious paddle into the water so far, but nonetheless welcome.
That said, don’t get hopes up for anything happening any time soon. Congress is unlikely to advance any legislation ahead of mid-term elections in November.