An ordinary credit card reader can give thieves a gateway to identity theft in the age of Big Data. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Government use of Big Data “is enabling important discoveries and innovations in public safety, health care, medicine, education, energy use, agriculture, and a host of other areas,” a White House fact sheet on a newly-released review stated. “But Big Data technologies also raise challenging questions about how best to protect privacy and other values in a world where data collection will be increasingly ubiquitous, multidimensional, and permanent.”
The White House issued the report on May, the culmination of a 90-day assessment. The review avoids direct mention of the National Security Agency, but it was put into motion by Edward Snowden’s revelations, instead focusing on the tradeoffs of widespread data collection.
There is the good: saving lives through infectious disease tracking, economic efficiencies across industries and analytics that detect or prevent taxpayer fraud. But there’s also the bad: using Big Data to discriminate in housing, employment or credit; the possibility of revealing personally identifiable information; and the potential to “alter the balance of power between government and citizen,” the report noted.
To strike a balance, the report makes a series of recommendations, including advancing the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights in an effort to make government use of Big Data more transparent. The panel, which included members of President Obama’s cabinet and a team of advisers, also recommends that Congress pass federal data-breach legislation to establish a national standard, the extension of privacy protections to non-U.S. citizens and amendments that would update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
The reaction in industry and the tech community appears to be cautiously optimistic.
“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,” Mike Hettinger, TechAmerica senior vice president for federal government affairs and public sector, said in a released statement. “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. That said, we are extremely pleased that the White House has chosen with this paper to back several reforms that the technology industry has been backing for years, namely creating a national data breach law and reforms to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.”