AMERICANS SHOULD not fear a future of big data, in which vast amounts of information about people’s homes, habits and health, among other things, can be collected, stored, accessed and analyzed. But they should be cautious.
That much is clear from a recent White House report on big data. Compiled by the administration over 90 days, the analysis articulates the prospects and the perils, and it suggests a few policies. But the path it recommends taking is still mostly unmapped.
Your thermostat can adjust your energy use to limit overconsumption — and collect data indicating where you are in your home. GPS devices can track your workouts — and tell app makers, or anyone who buys the information from them, where you’ve been. Secondhand data brokers get their hands on all sorts of information generated on phones, in Internet stores and in other contexts, creating sometimes-extensive profiles of individuals. Advertisers, lenders and employers can buy those profiles to find the right consumers for their product or the right employees to hire. Those same data can be used to discriminate against people.
Government is in on the game, too: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services can root out improper payments by applying data analytics to massive stores of payment information — but doing such things can put personal health records under scrutiny.
Previously, the difficulty of obtaining and sorting through mostly paper records made this sort of information-gathering impossible. Now it is commonplace, but official and unofficial privacy protections have not kept up. Some things — such as consumer credit scores — are subject to strict government regulation. Other players in big data have little or no oversight at all.
Among the things to be concerned about are those private data brokers and other companies that compile massive amounts of information on hundreds of millions of people from sources such as social media services, online ad clicks, purchase histories and public records. Some even assign individuals scores, analogous to traditional credit scores, without regulation. Those individuals probably don’t have any idea they are being scored, let alone about the data being used or any errors that they might contain.
The report suggests some broad principles. People should know what’s being collected about them, where it’s stored, that it’s being stored securely and what it’s used for. Data brokers, for example, ought to offer information to those they profile on a unified Web site, like credit ratings agencies must do now. But, given the rapid advance of technology and increasingly numerous sources of information, the report says, policy may have to adjust the old approach to privacy protection: Rather than putting the emphasis only on when information can be collected, government and industry might focus on when certain sorts of information can be used and by whom. Congress should take up the discussion.
No matter the response, one bottom line must be consumer awareness. The world of big data is complex and confusing, and those using the information often don’t have an incentive to let their targets know. The government should insist consumers get the information they need to sort it out.