White House releases big data and privacy report


The report examines the private-sector collection of data, shifting some focus away from the National Security Agency's programs. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

The White House released a long-awaited report Thursday on how the technology industry's collection of big data affects the online privacy of millions of Americans.

The report, authored by a group led by White House counselor John Podesta, makes several recommendations on how the government can grapple with the way widespread data collection affects the online privacy of average Americans.

The report recommends that Congress pass national data breach legislation, extend privacy protections to non-U.S. citizens, and update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which controls how the government can access e-mail.

The recommendations, in part, build on previous White House efforts.

Two years ago, the president called for a consumer data “bill of rights,” that would protect consumers when companies collected data about their activities. But the subsequent release of classified information by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden complicated that effort, which never gained traction on Capitol Hill. In Thursday's report, the panel recommended that the bill of rights proposal be revived and advanced.

While much of the recent discussion about data collection has been about the dragnet surveillance of the National Security Agency, the report focuses on collection practices by companies such as Google, Facebook, online data brokers and online advertising companies.

The Podesta review started after the backlash to the Snowden revelations, which produced resentment  from leading  technology company executive  and demands for reform from privacy activists in the U.S. and Europe.  The European parliament approved resolutions calling for regulation of surveillance activities by private companies and asked that the matter be on the table during ongoing trade negotiations.

The report does not heavily discuss NSA surveillance -- an intentional focus, Podesta said.

“It was our task to really look at these other sectors,” he said on a press call discussing the report. “It’s in no way hypocritical” for the White House to speak out on these issues in light of the NSA disclosures, he said.

In the course of the review, Podesta and his staff – and on occasion the president – met with hundreds of stakeholders, including civil liberties advocates and executives from leading technology companies. The 90-day review focuses particularly on how the large-scale collection of consumer information could be used to discriminate against those applying for health care, jobs and housing.

Podesta and the president met with Eric Schmidt of Google and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook among other well-known executives. In the course of the meetings,  civil rights groups expressed concern that the data could be used in a discriminatory fashion and that consumers deserved to see information that was being retained about their activities.

Among other topics, the report was expected to look at technological changes that allow governments and the private sector to track consumer activities, including mobile telephones.

In its analysis of how the government should introduce policies related to big data, the group was clear to recognize how big data can benefit society. The report notes in particular that being able to quickly sift through data at this scale and speed is saving lives, making the economy more efficient and saving taxpayer dollars.

But, as expected, it also highlighted that allowing companies and the government to have access to a broad swath of consumer information can "alter the balance of power between government and citizen." It also raised concerns that the disclosure of personal details could lead to "new modes of discrimination" when Americans apply for housing, employment or credit.

A parallel report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and led by also recommended that any new policies should focus on the how the data are used, rather than on the technical aspects of its collection — a nod to how quickly the processes by which tech companies gather information can change.

"In light of the continuing proliferation of ways to collect and use information about people, PCAST recommends that policy focus primarily on whether specific uses of information about people affect privacy adversely. It also recommends that policy focus on outcomes, on the 'what' rather than the 'how,' to avoid becoming obsolete as technology advances," wrote PCAST co-chair John Holdren in the report.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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Hayley Tsukayama | May 1