White House Releases Big Data Report

May 2, 2014
B. Rose Huber | (609) 258-0157
Woodrow Wilson School

Big Data continues to transform the way we live and work, altering the relationships between government, citizens, businesses and consumers. But does it come at a cost?

To address the benefits and potential dangers of Big Data, the White House Executive Office issued a report May 1 that suggests passing national legislation on responding to data breaches as well as revising consumer privacy legislation.

We discussed the report, which was issued in response to President Obama's January request to conduct a 90-day study, with Edward Felten, director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School and the Robert E. Kahn Professor of Computer Science and Public Affairs.

Q. Can you briefly explain Big Data? How does it both help and hurt us?

"Big Data" refers to the use of modern computing technologies to collect, store and analyze large amounts of information. When the information is about people and their activities, which it often is, this can raise serious privacy concerns. At the same time, Big Data analysis can yield valuable insights to improve health, energy efficiency and other important social goals.

The administration's study was started as a result of the furor over the National Security Agency's (NSA) collection of large volumes of data about Americans. In President Obama's Jan. 17 speech about NSA surveillance, he asked that this study be done.

Q. How might this report – "Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values?" – impact everyday Americans? Have other reports like this been issued?

The report will have two main effects. First, it will advance the public policy discussion about Big Data issues. Second, it recommends specific actions that government agencies will take.

One notable topic discussed in the report is the possibility that Big Data might have discriminatory effects, such as "digital redlining," in which complex, data-based algorithms have the effect of hurting disadvantaged groups by, for example, denying credit or withholding attractive employment or commercial offers. (To read more about this, see pages 51-53 of the report.)   

Past discussions have mostly focused on the negative privacy implications of Big Data. It is valuable to add to the discussion these concerns about discrimination.

Q. What do you think of the policy recommendations put forth by the committee? How quickly might we expect to see implementation?

Many of the recommendations will start being implemented over the next few months.  Others require legislation, so they will take longer, if they happen at all.  

Three of the policy recommendations require legislation.  

The Privacy Bill of Rights is a broad, baseline privacy bill. The Administration proposed it in 2012 but was unable to get it through Congress. A substantive privacy bill of this type will be difficult to pass given the current situation in Congress.

The other two legislative proposals – national data breach legislation and reform of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act – are narrower and seem to have broader support. They might be passable, assuming Congress is not totally deadlocked. Data-breach legislation would create a national requirement that companies holding private data about people must take adequate precautions to protect the data and must take certain actions if the data leaks. Electronic Communications Privacy Act reform would change the rules about when government can use court orders to get data about a person that is held by a third party, such as an email provider, so that a person's data wouldn't be less protected just because a third party was holding it.

Extending privacy protections to non-U.S. persons can be implemented if the executive branch changes its practices with respect to non-U.S. person data. This recommendation will not be popular with the intelligence community, but, if implemented, it will help U.S. businesses keep overseas customers who are currently worried about entrusting their data to American-run servers.

Improving privacy protection for K-12 educational data is an overdue step and should be uncontroversial.

Finally, the call for expanding technical expertise in government is music to my ears. The issues raised by Big Data are technical in nature and must be addressed in a technically sophisticated way. Government has a lot of work to do to create an environment and career path that is welcoming to technologists. 

WWS Reacts is a series of interviews with Woodrow Wilson School experts addressing current events. 

The Woodrow Wilson School sponsored a conference about health and Big Data April 4, 2014. Read about it here