Today, the White House released its much-anticipated report on the economic, political and social implications of “Big Data” – that is, new technologies and techniques for collecting, storing and analyzing massive new sets of information. The report is the result of a ninety-day review, led by White House counselor John Podesta, which was announced by President Obama in his January 17th speech addressing the need for reform of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs.
One major issue addressed by today’s report is the potential threat posed by big data technologies to minority and underserved communities. The White House report highlights how more work must be done to ensure that big data does not lead to discrimination when it comes to key services and economic opportunities such as housing, employment, and credit. Similar concerns were recently raised by a range of civil rights and consumer organizations, including New America’s Open Technology Institute (OTI), in a set of “Civil Rights Principles for an Era of Big Data” released in February.
“’Big data’ isn’t just a privacy issue—it’s also a civil rights issue. So we’re very thankful that the White House report has squarely put the issue of big data and discrimination on the table. New technologies enabling massive data collection and analysis promise many economic and practical benefits, but they also have a dark side, creating new risks of data-driven digital discrimination and the reinforcement of existing inequalities through automated decision-making,” said Dr. Seeta Peña Gangadharan, a Senior Research Fellow with OTI, who specializes in studying technology’s impact on underserved communities and is organizing an academic workshop on the issue of“Data and Discrimination” this month. “We look forward to a continuing discussion between policymakers, researchers, and the wide range of consumer and civil rights groups that share our concerns about digital profiling and data-driven red-lining, to ensure that the era of ‘big data’ is an era of greater equality and opportunity for all.”
The report’s treatment of law enforcement surveillance issues also garnered praise from OTI.
“In a digital age, the emails you store in the Internet cloud should be entitled to the same privacy protections as the letters you store in your file cabinet, which is why privacy groups, Internet companies, and hundreds of lawmakers on the Hill support updating our electronic privacy laws for twenty-first century,” said OTI policy director Kevin Bankston, describing the ongoing push to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 to clearly require law enforcement investigators to obtain a search warrant before seizing private emails from online service providers. “Especially now that the White House has joined the chorus of voices calling for strong electronic privacy reform, its time for Congress to quit stalling and move forward on legislation to ensure that the police can’t secretly grab your private emails without probable cause.”
Although the report’s discussion of law enforcement surveillance drew praise from OTI, the report’s failure to discuss any of the issues raised by the NSA’s surveillance programs—those programs are not discussed at all in the report—was a source of contention. As Kevin Bankston continued:
“Although today’s report is a helpful addition to ongoing discussions about consumer privacy and digital discrimination, it’s worth asking the question: in a post-Snowden world, with government spying at the top of the agenda for policymakers, Internet companies and advocates both here and around the globe, was this really the best way for the White House’s top tech policy minds to be spending the last three months? Or was this process ultimately a distraction that has needlessly taken focus away from the debate over how to rein in the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance programs?”