White House big-data panel calls for privacy protections, ignores NSA

Big-data collection has several benefits but raises other privacy concerns, a presidential panel says

Congress should take action to protect privacy in response to a growing big-data revolution, a White House panel has recommended, but its report does not address wide-ranging surveillance and data-collection programs at the U.S. National Security Agency.

The group of officials in President Barack Obama's administration recommended Thursday that government agencies extend U.S. privacy protections to residents of other countries, but the 85-page report sidesteps the past year's controversy over the NSA's worldwide surveillance efforts. The report does note data collection efforts at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement agencies.

Big data has several beneficial applications, but also raises privacy concerns in "a world where data collection will be increasingly ubiquitous, multidimensional, and permanent," the report said.

The big-data panel, led by presidential counselor John Podesta, also calls on Congress to pass a national data-breach notification law and provide new warrant protection for stored emails. The panel called on Congress to amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) to require law enforcement agencies to get court-ordered warrants to search email messages and other Web content stored for more than 180 days, instead of obtaining them with a simple subpoena.

A group of digital rights groups and tech vendors has been pushing Congress for ECPA reform since 2010 without success.

Congress should also pass a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights proposed by Obama in 2012, and the federal government should limit data collected about students to educational purposes, the panel recommended.

Big data has many useful applications, including the tracking of severe storms, the diagnosis of deadly illnesses and the monitoring of the maintenance needs of airplanes and delivery trucks, Podesta wrote in a blog post.

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are using predictive analytics to flag likely instances of reimbursement fraud before insurance claims are paid, he noted. "Big data is making government work better and saving taxpayer dollars," he wrote.

But big-data collection raises "serious questions" about privacy as well, he wrote. The panel questioned whether a so-called notice-and-consent data collection model, when a user of a website or other service grants one-time permission for data collection, "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," he said.

Some companies could also use big data to discriminate against minorities in housing, employment, credit and other areas, the report said.

The Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA), a trade group, welcomed the report's conclusions that big data "provides substantial public benefits." Current regulations are adequate to address potential concerns, the SIIA said.

Consumer group Consumer Watchdog applauded the report and backed the six broad policy recommendations in it.

"I expected the White House team to focus on the benefits of big data and gloss over the very real threats to privacy and liberty it poses," John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project director, said by email. "Instead they clearly spelled out the dangers."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

Tags U.S. White HouseConsumer WatchdogU.S. National Security AgencyU.S. Department of Homeland SecurityJohn SimpsonBarack ObamagovernmentSoftware and Information Industry AssociationprivacyU.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid ServicessecurityJohn Podesta

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