A White House working group recommended the implementation of national standards for data breach notifications to replace a “patchwork” of state laws, while illustrating the positive nature of “big data”
In a report called “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values,” the Obama Administration highlighted the need to promote the benefits of data collection and analysis, while minimizing any potential harm to citizens. John Podesta, counselor to President Barack Obama, noted in a blog post on the report that big data has tremendous benefits for society.
“Big data is saving lives,” Podesta said. “Infections are dangerous—even deadly—for many babies born prematurely. By collecting and analyzing millions of data points from a NICU, one study was able to identify factors, like slight increases in body temperature and heart rate, that serve as early warning signs an infection may be taking root—subtle changes that even the most experienced doctors wouldn’t have noticed on their own.”
He noted that data analysis has the power to make the economy function more efficiently, to make the government run better and save consumers money. It can be instrumental in law enforcement and public safety, as well as in the marketing sphere.
Data collection certainly isn’t new. In 1854, during a cholera epidemic in London, Dr. John Snow evaluated the path of the disease through the city and ultimately traced its origin to a contaminated water pump. His efforts to track data represented early modern data science and enabled the medical community to disprove long-held beliefs about the spread of disease.
Big data, however, represents the stunning array of information generated, collected, and analyzed in our world. It is the photos uploaded to Facebook, the Tweets from Orlando Jones about the latest episode of Sleepy Hollow, and it is the negative reviews of the local pizza place on Yelp. It is everywhere and everything.
“Big data may be viewed as property, as a public resource, or as an expression of individual identity,” Podesta said in the report. “Big data applications may be the driver of America’s economic future or a threat to cherished liberties. Big data may be all of these things.”
He added, “But big data raises serious questions, too, about how we protect our privacy and other values in a world where data collection is increasingly ubiquitous and where analysis is conducted at speeds approaching real time. In particular, our review raised the question of whether the “notice and consent” framework, in which a user grants permission for a service to collect and use information about them, still allows us to meaningfully control our privacy as data about us is increasingly used and reused in ways that could not have been anticipated when it was collected.”
The working group study also raised concerns about the extent data could be used to discriminate against individuals and groups.
The report emphasized that big data promises progress, but must be used effectively instead of abused. Consumers may not even understand the digital footprint they leave when emailing, texting or storing personal files in the cloud. In addition, they might not be fully protected, Podesta and his fellow researchers found. In 1986, the year the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), the “protections afforded to metadata were calibrated for a time that predated the rise of personal computers, the Internet, mobile phones, and cloud computing.”
“No one imagined then that the traces of digital data left today as a matter of routine can be reassembled to reveal intimate personal details,” the study authors said.
The goal for policymakers should be to craft protective measures that respect the privacy of the public, while ensuring that data can still be harnessed for law enforcement activities, according to the report.
The study authors asserted that the solution should not be to halt the use of big data. Instead, government should work to protect citizens, make the public sector an “attractive” place for talented tech-savvy workers, and provide a way for consumers to “participate” in the use of their data.
“When wrestling with the vexing issues big data raises in the public sector, it can be easy to lose sight of the tremendous opportunities these technologies offer to improve public services, grow the economy, and improve the health and safety of our communities,” said Podesta. “These opportunities are real and must be kept at the center of the conversation about big data.”