White House Report on Big Data: Opportunities and Values

We summarize the key findings in the recently released White House report on Big Data, highlight the key opportunities and concerns, and list the recommendations made to the President.

US WhiteHouse LogoIn January, President Obama asked his Counselor John Podesta to lead a 90-day review of big data and privacy. The working group sought public input and worked over 90 days with academic researchers and privacy advocates, regulators and the technology industry, advertisers and civil rights groups, the international community and the American public. On May 1, 2014, the big data working group released the report summarizing their findings and recommendations. Besides providing a good overview of Big Data across all sectors, the report points out key opportunities as well as concerns in harnessing Big Data.

Here is a summary of the key points from the report (for the complete report, refer the link given at the end):

The declining cost of collection, storage, and processing of data, combined with new sources of data like sensors, cameras, and geospatial technologies, mean that we live in a world of near-ubiquitous data collection. All this data is being crunched at a speed that is increasingly approaching real-time, meaning that big data algorithms could soon have immediate effects on decisions being made about our lives. The big data revolution presents incredible opportunities in virtually every sector of the economy and every corner of society.

Which technologies or uses of data are most transforming your life?
Data use-cases This report begins by exploring the changing nature of privacy as computing technology has advanced and big data has come to the forefront. It proceeds by identifying the sources of these data, the utility of these data — including new data analytics enabled by data mining and data fusion — and the privacy challenges big data poses in a world where technologies for re-identification often outpace privacy-preserving de-identification capabilities, and where it is increasingly hard to identify privacy-sensitive information at the time of its collection.

What really matters about big data is what it does. Aside from how we define big data as a technological phenomenon, the wide variety of potential uses for big data analytics raises crucial questions about whether our legal, ethical, and social norms are sufficient to protect privacy and other values in a big data world. Unprecedented computational power and sophistication make possible unexpected discoveries, innovations, and advancements in our quality of life. But these capabilities, most of which are not visible or available to the average consumer, also create an asymmetry of power between those who hold the data and those who intentionally or inadvertently supply it.

Big data technologies can derive value from large datasets in ways that were previously impossible—indeed, big data can generate insights that researchers didn’t even think to seek. Used well, big data analysis can boost economic productivity, drive improved consumer and government services, thwart terrorists, and save lives. BIG Opportunities:
  • Big data is saving lives. By collecting and analyzing millions of data points from a neonatal intensive care unit, one study was able to identify factors, like slight changes 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 may not have noticed on their own.
  • Big data is making the economy work better. Utility companies are starting to use big data to predict periods of peak electric demand, adjusting the grid to be more efficient and potentially averting brown-outs.
  • Big data is saving taxpayer dollars. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have begun using predictive analytics—a big data technique—to flag likely instances of reimbursement fraud before claims are paid.

Big data also presents powerful opportunities in areas as diverse as medical research, agriculture, energy efficiency, global development, education, environmental monitoring, and modeling climate change impacts, among others. Recognizing that big data technologies are used far beyond the intelligence community, this report has taken a broad view of the issues implicated by big data. Some of the most profound challenges revealed during this review concern how big data analytics may lead to disparate inequitable treatment, particularly of disadvantaged groups, or create such an opaque decision-making environment that individual autonomy is lost in an impenetrable set of algorithms. The report appreciated government’s efforts in this direction such as the Open Data Initiatives and My Data Initiatives (eg. Blue Button, Green Button, MyStudentData, etc.). Big data concerns BIG Concerns:
  • Big data tools can alter the balance of power between government and citizen. Government agencies can reap enormous benefits from using big data to improve service delivery or detect payment fraud. But government uses of big data also have the potential to chill the exercise of free speech or free association. As more data is collected, analyzed, and stored on both public and private systems, we must be vigilant in ensuring that balance is maintained between government and citizens, and revise our laws accordingly.
  • Big data tools can reveal intimate personal details. One powerful big data technique involves merging multiple data sets, drawn from disparate sources, to reveal complex patterns. But this practice, sometimes known as “data fusion,” can also lead to the so-called “mosaic effect,” whereby personally identifiable information can be discerned even from ostensibly anonymized data. As big data becomes even more widely used in the private sector to bring a wellspring of innovations and productivity, we must ensure that effective consumer privacy protections are in place to protect individuals.
  • Big data tools could lead to 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.

The big data revolution is in its earliest stages. We will be grappling for many years to understand the full sweep of its technologies; the ways it will empower health, education, and the economy; and, crucially, what its implications are for core American values, including privacy, fairness, non-discrimination, and self-determination. To maintain a healthy balance of encouraging innovation while protecting our values, the working group made six actionable policy recommendations in their report to the President:
  • Advance the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. The Department of Commerce should take appropriate consultative steps to seek stakeholder and public comment on big data developments and how they impact the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights and then devise draft legislative text for consideration by stakeholders and submission by the President to Congress.
  • Pass National Data Breach Legislation. Congress should pass legislation that provides for a single national data breach standard along the lines of the Administration’s May 2011 Cybersecurity legislative proposal.
  • Extend Privacy Protections to non-U.S. Persons. The Office of Management and Budget should work with departments and agencies to apply the Privacy Act of 1974 to non-U.S. persons where practicable, or to establish alternative privacy policies that apply appropriate and meaningful protections to personal information regardless of a person’s nationality.
  • Ensure Data Collected on Students in School is Used for Educational Purposes. The federal government must ensure that privacy regulations protect students against having their data being shared or used inappropriately, especially when the data is gathered in an educational context.
  • Expand Technical Expertise to Stop Discrimination. The federal government’s lead civil rights and consumer protection agencies should expand their technical expertise to be able to identify practices and outcomes facilitated by big data analytics that have a discriminatory impact on protected classes, and develop a plan for investigating and resolving violations of law.
  • Amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Congress should amend ECPA 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.

Besides, the report also recommended that policy attention should focus more on the actual uses of big data and less on its collection and analysis. Additionally, policies and regulation, at all levels of government, should not embed particular technological solutions, but rather should be stated in terms of intended outcomes.

The complete report is available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/big_data_privacy_report_may_1_2014.pdf