Two Administration Big Data Reports Hint At Policy Challenges Ahead

By David Bruggeman
May 28, 2014

In early May the White House and the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) each issued reports on ‘big data’ as part of the Administration’s 90-day big data review.   John Holdren, co-chair of PCAST and the President’s science adviser, was involved with both reports.  USACM submitted comments to the Office of Science and Technology Policy in connection with the big data review, and the White House solicited public feedback via its website.  The responses expressed significant concerns with data collection and use practices associated with big data, and reflected a strong interest in having effective transparency and oversight in place for data practices.

The review, announced in January as part of the response to leaks and disclosures about how the government was collected and using data for national security reasons, was focused in particular on the effects of big data on how people live and work.  This includes how private and public sector entities collect and use this data.  As you might expect, the focus of the PCAST report was more narrow than that of the White House report.  The White House report acknowledges the benefits possible through big data, which can include saving lives and making organizations run more efficiently.  It also made recommendations for legislative changes and additional policy actions that should improve the security and privacy of how big data is collected and used.

Besides concerns over the privacy and security of collected big data, the White House report highlighted how big data can facilitate discriminatory outcomes, especially in areas where there are existing protections in place.  This is in addition to the chilling effect government data collection and use can have on free expression and association.  The ease by which information can be collected, merged and analyzed without human interaction or interpretation makes it easier for large groups to be targeted.

The PCAST report is subtitled “A Technological Perspective” and does not address all of the same concerns found in the White House report.  As the title suggest, it dives into the technology and describes potential applications of big data and the associated tradeoffs that emerge.  Its recommendations are similarly focused on technologies more than policies.  It encourages technology-neutral policy solutions that focus on outcomes.  It, recognizing the technical challenges of controlling data collection, encourages more policy attention on the uses of big data compared to its collection and analysis.

This recommendation should *not* be construed, as it might be easy to do, as an abandonment of controlling data collection practices.  It simply acknowledges that big data can reveal information in the combination of data sets, meaning that the collection of information that would not impinge on privacy at the time of collection could later contribute to revealing private information.  In the view of the PCAST report, privacy risks revealed through the analysis and use of information are at least as important – if not moreso – than risks present at the time of data collection.

While the White House may have completed the 90-day big data review, the issues it raises will persist, and deserve a longer-term plan and response.  It’s not clear just yet what the Obama Administration intends to do about that.