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Why civil rights groups are warning against ‘big data’

The backlash against the government's use of bulk phone records for intelligence purposes has been led mostly by technologists used to speaking the language of privacy. But a new push by civil rights organizations to challenge "big data" — both in the public and private sectors — is highlighting how the abuse of data can uniquely affect disadvantaged minorities.

More than a dozen groups are backing a set of principles targeting the widespread use of data in law enforcement, hiring and commerce. The list includes some of the country's biggest civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza.

The document, obtained by The Washington Post, underscores what the signers feel is a threat to racial and religious minorities, vulnerable seniors and other groups who may be unfairly targeted due to the increasing collection of data that could allow for discrimination. The principles commit supporters to work toward ending "high-tech profiling," the addition of built-in protections in computerized decision-making systems, putting pressure on commercial entities for greater data disclosures and "protect[ing] people from inaccurate data," among other steps.

"Big data has supercharged the potential for discrimination by corporations and the government in ways that victims don’t even see," said Wade Henderson, chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "This threatens to undermine the core civil rights protections guaranteed by the law in ways that were unimaginable even in the most recent past."

In 2011, an Associated Press investigation revealed a sophisticated program by New York City police to spy on American Muslims. Later reports revealed that officers singled out mosques by collecting attendees' license plate numbers and plotting their locations on a map. The Department of Homeland Security's more recent plan to build a national license plate database — and the outcry it provoked — suggests that minorities may be especially vulnerable to what Americans would perceive as a violation of privacy.

The concern isn't just racial discrimination, civil rights advocates say, citing a Senate report on credit reporting agencies and third-party data vendors. The information collected by these businesses leads to the creation of demographic profiles, such as "Ethnic Second-City Strugglers" and "Zero Mobility," stereotypical categories that could be used to market predatory financial instruments -- or deny access to premium ones -- to underprivileged groups.

While government and commercial surveillance potentially affect all Americans, minorities face those risks at disproportionate rates, according to the coalition's data principles.

The new push raises questions about whether big data shoud require enhanced protections for minorities in particular, on top of the general privacy protections afforded to all Americans. But it also reflects a convergence of interests among civil rights activists and technologists, two groups that have clashed in the past. For example, the NAACP and other like-minded organizations backed a 2010 merger between Comcast and NBC-Universal, arguing that the deal would improve employment among minorities. Lining up on the other side of the deal was the consumer group Free Press, which called the cable company's attempt at vertical integration a "Pandora's box." In a sign of unity, Free Press is among the signatories of the privacy principles issued Thursday.

While the link between big data and civil rights may not be immediately clear, independent technology analyst David Robinson said analytics is all about targeting and separating one type of individual from another.

"If you start with issues of big data and ask, 'What are the civil rights implications?' it feels not obvious," he said. "But if you start with core civil rights issues and ask, 'How is big data creeping in?' It's all over the place."