White House big data report hinges on privacy

A year ago, not many knew what big data was.

That changed when revelations that the National Security Agency was collecting massive amounts of data on American citizens became public knowledge. The news gave many Americans pause to think, “how private is my data?”

For that reason, the White House decided to take a look at the relationship between big data and privacy. And yesterday it acted, releasing a sweeping 79-page report detailing the history, challenges, benefits and risks of big data and the administration’s position on privacy issues in today’s technology-based world.

The report, “Big Data: A Technological Perspective,” acknowledged the many economic and social benefits big data can deliver, but cautioned there are many potential dangers in the areas of privacy and civil liberties.


Obama adviser John Podesta led the review of policy implications around the big data and privacy. The report was conducted by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, a group of the country’s leading scientists, technologists and engineers who advise the president and the Executive Office of the President on related policy issues.

Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, described the report as a “mixed bag.” Tien said EFF was disappointed the White House didn’t touch on the big data used by NSA or the intelligence community.

“It’s a missed opportunity to address the whole reason this came about in the first place,” Tien said.

The report addressed this concern, saying it “leaves issues raised by the use of big data in signals intelligence to be addressed through the policy guidance that the president announced in January.”

Tien did note that including NSA and intelligence community in the report may not have been possible in the timeline the president gave for the report, which was just 90 days.


“It’s definitely a strong first step,” Khaliah Barnes, Electronic Privacy Information Center administrative law counsel, told FedScoop. “The key will be in implementing it, and following through on that report.”

EPIC was one of the organizations that sent its recommendations and comments to the Office of Science and Technology Policy in early April. The comments included a warning to OSTP about the current big data environment, calling for stronger big data privacy safeguards and swift passage of the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

Although, not everyone was pleased with the report’s treatment of some issues around big data and privacy.

“The report disproportionately focuses on fears that big data might harm consumers by violating their privacy, threatening their civil liberties, and hurting their pocketbooks,” Daniel Castro, director of the Center for Data Innovation, said in a statement.

The report also repeats some misconceptions, including the notion “once data is collected, it can be very difficult to keep anonymous” or that “re-identification is becoming more powerful than de-identification,” according to Castro. In fact, there are techniques to de-identify data, he said.


Castro commended the administration for its efforts, but said the report is a “reminder that we have a long way to go before Washington gets over its fear of big data.”

Both EPIC and EFF support the passage of the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, whereas Castro said it would impose unnecessary restrictions on the collection and use of data by the private sector.

To get input from the public on this topic, a survey on got feedback from more than 24,000 people. According to the data, respondents were most worried with legal standards and oversights when it came to concern with data practices; 85 percent were “very much concerned” with legal standards and oversights, 84 percent with transparency and data use and 61 percent with collection of location data.

In relation to data collection, 67 percent do not trust the intelligence community at all compared to 34 percent of government agencies.

Moving forward, the council laid out five recommendations for big data and privacy;

  • Policy attention should focus more on the actual uses of big data and less on its collection and analysis
  • Policies and regulation at all levels of government should not embed particular technological solutions, but rather should be stated in terms of intended outcomes
  • With coordination and encouragement from OSTP, the agencies of the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development program should strength U.S. research in privacy-related technologies and in the relevant areas of social science that inform the successful application of those technologies
  • OSTP, together with the appropriate educational institutions and professional societies, should encourage increased education and training opportunities concerning privacy protections, including career paths for professionals
  • The U.S. should take the lead both in the international arena and at home by adopting policies that stimulate the use of practical privacy-protecting technologies that exist today

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