As 90-day countdown begins, privacy groups head to White House to talk big data

It looks like privacy will be the first ticket item on the big data review President Barack Obama called for in his State of the Union address as part of his overall government surveillance reform initiative.

A number of representatives from privacy and civil liberties groups talked with White House staff Monday afternoon about the administration’s review of big data.

“The meeting today is one of a number that will inform our report to the president over the next two-plus months,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said. “It is one of a number of ways we will use to engage outside perspectives — including the public at large — in this dialogue.”

However, Daniel Castro, senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said this first meeting with privacy advocates is very telling of the overall agenda of the review.


“We want to protect people’s privacy, but there are ways to do that without forestalling innovation,” Castro said.

Castro said one obstacle may be the lack of cohesion between two seemingly separate sides of the big data conversation; privacy and the benefits of big data. The White House last year hosted a major event, “Data to Knowledge to Action,” in which it touted the economic benefits of big data and innovation.

The White House is “having one conversation with privacy advocates and a separate conversation about economics and innovation with a different group,” Castro said. “To understand how privacy affects progress forward, they need to bring together and reconcile those two conversations.”

John Podesta, counselor to the president, is leading the 90-day effort, in team with the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. In the announcement of the project last month, Podesta said they will be working with industry, technologists, privacy experts, civil liberties groups, international partners and other government officials.

In addition to collaborating with various groups who have a stake in the future of big data, Podesta and PCAST will work with Commerce and Energy Secretaries Penny Pritzker and Ernest Moniz; John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy; and Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, as well as other senior government officials.


The White House did not respond to requests for further information on meeting attendees or agenda.

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