White House 'Big Data' Report Excludes Critical Look at Surveillance State

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Common Dreams

White House 'Big Data' Report Excludes Critical Look at Surveillance State

Internal assessment admits some privacy reforms are needed, but proposes no aggressive overhauls

White House Adviser John Podesta headed the production of the report. (Photo: Getty)

The White House's internal report on 'Big Data' and privacy issues, released Thursday afternoon, largely sidestepped the controversial issue of government surveillance, emphasizing claims that modern data collection technologies are "saving lives" and making economic and energy systems "more efficient."

The result of a three-month review headed by White House adviser John Podesta, the assessment was convened by President Obama following pressure and outrage over mass surveillance by the U.S. and other governments exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Yet, the report dodged a thorough examination of data collection for intelligence purposes, instead focusing on policies across government agencies and in the private sector.

"We are disappointed with the scope, because the report was created as a result of the president's response to questions of NSA surveillance," said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an interview with Common Dreams. "We thought it was a bad move that when they actually started doing the report, it was scoped to largely avoid NSA surveillance and intelligence."

The report claims that big data collection has numerous advantages, from medical research to energy efficiency to global development.

Yet, Tien said he takes issue with the report's assumption that mass data collection is a "given."

"A lot of people are wondering, wait a minute, why did you get to collect that data in the first place?" said Lee. "That issue of mass collection of data continues to be a really serious issue for the average person and for courts, when you look at drones, video surveillance cameras, and automatic license place recognition."

The report acknowledges that mass data collection presents "serious concerns about how we protect our privacy and other values," according to a summary provided by the White House. The summary states that data mining technologies can "reveal intimate and personal details," and "government uses of big data also have the potential to chill the exercise of free speech or free association."

Furthermore, the report identifies potential "discriminatory outcomes":

As more decisions about our commercial and personal lives are determined by algorithms and automated processes, we must pay careful attention that big data does not systematically disadvantage certain groups, whether inadvertently or intentionally. We must prevent new modes of discrimination that some uses of big data may enable, particularly with regard to longstanding civil rights protections in housing, employment, and credit.

According to Tien, it is "important" that the report recognizes "that discrimination is an important aspect of big data that is different from privacy."

The report recommends six privacy reforms ostensibly aimed at 'protecting our values.' Numbered among them is the suggestion to "Amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to ensure the standard of protection for online, digital content is consistent with that afforded in the physical world—including by removing archaic distinctions between email left unread or over a certain age," according to the summary.

Furthermore, the report calls for the advancement of the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, first introduced by Obama in 2012.

Responding to the report, Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, stated: “This report rightly recognizes that discrimination and inequality which already exist in society can be amplified by large-scale data analysis. We must remain vigilant to ensure that groups like racial minorities are helped by big data, not further marginalized by it.”

According to Tien, the recommendations are a "mixed bag" and "could have gone further."

He added that major questions remain: "How do we hold the NSA and intelligence community accountable? How do we know what they are doing?"

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