In January 2014, President Obama commissioned a report on big data and privacy in the United States. Counselor to the President John Podesta, Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology John Holdren, and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy Jeff Zients presented their report on May 1, 2014.
We live in a world of near-ubiquitous data collection where that data is being crunched at a speed increasingly approaching real-time. This revolution presents incredible opportunities:
- Big data is saving lives. Infections are dangerous—even deadly—for many babies born prematurely. 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 have noticed on their own.
- Big data is making the economy work better. Jet engines and delivery trucks now come outfitted with sensors that continuously monitor hundreds of data points and send automatic alerts when maintenance is needed. 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. The Fraud Prevention System helps identify the highest-risk health care providers for waste, fraud, and abuse in real time and has already stopped, prevented, or identified $115 million in fraudulent payments.
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.
PRESERVING OUR VALUES
The opportunities presented by big data are considerable, but big data raises serious concerns about how we protect our privacy and other values. For example:
- 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.
No matter how quickly technology advances, it remains within our power to ensure that we both encourage innovation and protect our values through law, policy, and the practices we encourage in the public and private sector. To that end, the working group made six actionable policy recommendations in their report to the President:
- Advance the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights because consumers deserve clear, understandable, reasonable standards for how their personal information is used in the big data era.
- Pass National Data Breach Legislation that provides for a single national data breach standard, along the lines of the Administration's 2011 Cybersecurity legislative proposal.
- Extend Privacy Protections to non-U.S. Persons because privacy is a worldwide value that should be reflected in how the federal government handles personally identifiable information from non-U.S. citizens.
- Ensure Data Collected on Students in School is used for Educational Purposes to drive better learning outcomes while protecting students against their data being shared or used inappropriately.
- Expand Technical Expertise to Stop Discrimination because the federal government should build the technical expertise to be able to identify practices and outcomes facilitated by big data analytics that have a discriminatory impact on protected classes.
- 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.