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White House Report: Big Data, Big Challenge

White House counselor John Podesta Thursday reported back to the President with a report on "big data" with six major action items including advancing the Administration’s consumer Bill of Rights and creating a single national data breach standard.

On Jan. 17, the President called for comprehensive review by "senior government officials," led by Podesta. That review is itself one of the action items in the Obama Administration's responses to concerns about NSA data collection.

The goal was to look at how "big data" is collected, analyzed and used and the impact on privacy, public policy and the economy. Among other things, the White House wanted to know if there is a way to set international norms for managing data and how "we can continue to promote the free flow of information in ways that are consistent with both privacy and security."

The report definitely says there is "Big Brother" potential in "big data."

"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," said Podesta. "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."

Among the other findings were that "big data" is saving lives, boosting the economy, making government work better, but raises serious privacy and other concerns, including whether "notice and consent" works to provide meaningful control over data.

One significant finding, he said, was the possibility of using analytics to discriminate in housing, credit and employment.

One issue that has been raised in Hill hearings on privacy is data brokers creating of profiles that put consumers in categories like "rural and barely making it" and "ethnic second-city strugglers" for marketing purposes.

Podesta said in announcing the report that he knew better than to try and answer every question about big data in three months, but was able to make "concrete recommendations."

They are:

1.    "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.

2.    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.

3.   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.

4.    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.

5.   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.

6.   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."