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White House Delivers a Mixed Bag with Big Data Report

Like many in the technology space, I was pleasantly surprised last week when the White House delivered a balanced report on Big Data addressing the challenges posed by ubiquitous information sharing with the real value that sharing provides us. It’s just unfortunate that the report didn’t address the greatest public concern post-Snowden — government surveillance.

The report could have analyzed government access to our online accounts but instead chose a less self-critical route by raising bombastic specters of corporate misuse.

The report referenced Justice Brandeis’ famous “Right to Privacy” article as the rationale to limit big data innovation.  But it ignored the reason why Brandeis wrote it – concerns of “the evil of invasion of privacy by the newspapers.”  But of course we didn’t outlaw newspapers as they are a useful tool for conveying information and improving lives.

We find ourselves in a similar position with the technology of big data.  But some want to outlaw the technology and ignore big data’s benefits.

[pullquote]The report could have analyzed government access to our online accounts but instead chose a less self-critical route by raising vague specters of corporate misuse.[/pullquote]

The White House report, while making sensible recommendations, is overburdened with coded tech-speak buzzwords that could fan the flames of extreme regulation.  As it did this, the report missed the complexity in assigning accurate labels.

Take the discussion of “data brokers.”  It defined them as “a class of businesses that collect data across many sources, aggregate and analyze it, and then share that information, or information derived from it.” Unfortunately, these same practices are conduced by newspapers sharing their circulation lists, and phonebook companies — are they data brokers?

Likewise, the report discusses “scoring” by ad agencies.  But the use of the word “scoring” conflates advertisers recognizing “You like technology” with the concept of “scores” used for credit.  And the report discusses “discrimination” with respect to prices but avoids asking the question of whether loyalty card programs at supermarkets aren’t also a form of “price discrimination.”

In the end the report makes several suggestions we support:

    • The NTIA should continue using its multi-stakeholder process to develop a code of conduct
    • Update ECPA – a 1986 law that addresses government access to your online content
    • Pass a comprehensive data breach law that preempts state law and creates reasonable time period for notification
    • Work to limit cross-border sharing

Nonetheless, despite the specters, we look forward to working with the White House in achieving these objectives.

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