Privacy

Summary of White House Big Data Privacy Report: 'Give Feds More Power, Please'

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Data keeps multiplying
Credit: JD Hancock / photo on flickr

In January, the Obama administration put together a "working group" to analyze how huge swaths of Americans' data are being gathered and stored and what sort of privacy issues need to be addressed. The group's report was just released this week.

Before you ask: No, it's not about the National Security Agency (NSA) sweeping up huge amounts of metadata from phone and online communications by Americans, even though that's the big data conversation many Americans want to have right now. Such data gathering is vaguely mentioned in the full report, but primarily the 85-page study (pdf) is about consumer privacy in the private tech sector and citizen privacy in other aspects of government data collection. So, pretty much everything except NSA.

Here's the list of final policy recommendations. It's a bit of a mixed bag, but take note of how many appear to expand the power and reach of government authority:

  • 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.

The "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights" mentioned (pdf) calls for more transparency about online company privacy policies for users but wants to do so by expanding the power of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to monitor consumer website behavior, including creating a bureaucratic federal process for submitting site codes of conduct for federal review. But, hey, the summary proposes a "reasonable" 180-day turnaround on these reviews. No doubt it won't be a burden for anybody. The federal government has a good reputation for meeting deadlines, right?

As for the White House's desire to find ways to prevent big data from being used for discriminatory purposes, the problem is that currently at least one federal agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), has been making fools of itself and the administration (and wasting taxpayer dollars) going after misguided, flimsy cases. They've been all but laughed out of the courtroom for accusing companies of discrimination for using background and credit checks as part of their hiring process. Walter Olson, of the Cato Institute and Overlawyered, has a roundup of some of the EEOC's lows here.

On the plus side, it's good that they're calling for reform of the archaic e-mail search policy. Current law allows authorities to get access to stored e-mails older than 180 days with just a subpoena, not a warrant.

But still, on the whole, the proposal looks like federal agencies looking for more opportunities to regulate and pass more rules controlling private commerce, and to use their authority to come down like a ton of bricks on anybody who can't keep up with the many demands. And thus government compliance costs will gobble up another piece of the budget pie.

I would also point out that on the same day these recommendations were released, The Washington Post reported that several major tech companies such as Google, Facebook, and Apple were going to start informing their customers when the government subpoenas their data rather than keeping quiet about it. The Department of Justice objected strenuously to this new move toward transparency. The government is a terrible guardian of our privacy.

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  1. Security Tight at Secretive Democracy Alliance Meeting
    Democrats have long railed against the lack of transparency in political funding, but security was airtight this week as a hush-hush network of progressive moneymen and activists held a closed-door conference to map out their plan to shift U.S. policy to the left.

    At the elegant Ritz Carlton hotel in downtown Chicago, wealthy donors, Democratic politicians, and representatives from left-leaning activist groups met for a conference hosted by the Democracy Alliance, a progressive donor network that funnels millions of dollars to undisclosed activist groups and political causes….

    …A tired-sounding Alan Grayson, who is embroiled in a messy divorce involving bigamy and assault allegations, barked schedule changes into his cell phone in the lounge area, backlit by floor-to-ceiling views of the Chicago skyline.

    David Axelrod dined at the hotel’s restaurant Deca, which had a sign outside advertising its $100 grilled cheese sandwich filled with “40-year aged Wisconsin cheddar infused with 24K gold flakes.”…

    1. David Axelrod dined at the hotel’s restaurant Deca

      I wonder whether it’s staffed by bored high schoolers.

    2. $100 grilled cheese sandwich filled with “40-year aged Wisconsin cheddar infused with 24K gold flakes.”…

      If I saw that on the menu I would leave out of principle. We’re turning into Rome.

      1. Silly peasant. You wouldn’t be invited in the first place.

        1. Only because I don’t spew the correct bullshit.

          1. No, because you didn’t donate to the right campaigns.

  2. “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.”

    I eagerly await the upcoming Digital Diversity crusade. Analog Affirmative Action?

    1. Perhaps after the digital Fairness Doctrine goes into effect.

  3. Oh, and that pic and alt-text WINS.

  4. Ok, I lol’d at the alt text.

  5. The correct alt+text is “A Fistful of Datas”…

  6. 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.

    If that’s not an open mandate to do whatever the hell they want, I don’t know what is.

    1. If that’s not an open mandate to do whatever the hell they want

      Govspeak gobbledygook generally is.

  7. On the plus side, it’s good that they’re calling for reform of the archaic e-mail search policy. Current law allows authorities to get access to stored e-mails older than 180 days with just a subpoena, not a warrant.

    Yes, the call for supporting ECPA reform (which has a ton of bipartisan sponsors in the House and Senate, but hasn’t had significant action) is the best part about this, bar none.

  8. There is nothing I can think of that the government does that ever lessons it’\s power. Meanwhile, the last line of the article concisely summarizes why we should do anything but give them more power… ever.

  9. Is the whole country freaking out about privacy violations? Answer: Violate privacy more.

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