White House big data report: 68 fine pages, but no mention of spying

A White House-appointed committee released on Thursday its report and recommendations on how to deal with the advent of big data. It’s a generally balanced report that, curiously, doesn’t include any real reference to the large-scale domestic spying carried out by the National Security Agency — one of the biggest and most-impressive big data projects around.
Otherwise, the report hits most of the notes anything seriously assessing the promises and perils of big data needs to hit. It holds the potential to cure diseases, prevent crimes, streamline industries and the federal government, and improve the education system. It’s one of the things that helps maintain a generally free and useful internet.
It’s also a potential privacy nightmare. And the unchecked collection of, and access to, data about every aspect of our lives can lead to new methods of racial or class discrimination by police, banks and retailers.
The report concludes with six policy recommendations that the Obama administration should push for, mostly with regard to protecting privacy:

  • Advance the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights
  • Pass national data breach legislation
  • Extend privacy protection to non-U.S. persons
  • Ensure data collected on students in schools is used for educational purposes
  • Extend technical expertise to stop discrimination
  • Amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act

Some of of its suggestions for how these improvements might look in practice are fairly interesting, while others are just common sense. Most everyone might agree, for example, that the ECPA should be amended to provide emails and text messages the same type of privacy protections as handwritten letters despite their frequent storage on third-party servers. A more novel idea suggested was to mandate some sort of tagging system for data that would indicate its specified use so, for example, data collected for the purposes of targeted advertising wouldn’t be be used for credit scoring.
However, if it weren’t for a passing reference to the leaks by Edward Snowden in a section about security breaches, and the inclusion of the NSA on a list of dozens of organizations with which the committee met, the biggest data story in recent history would have gone entirely unaddressed. Even if someone willing to give the NSA the benefit of the doubt would have to admit its omission from the report is a little suspect. There’s a lot of talk about the Fourth Amendment and the ECPA, but nary a mention of the PATRIOT Act that supersedes both of them in the name of national security.
Not that one can really blame the commission that wrote the report for not wanting to tackle such a thorny issue. Many aspects of the digital age, whether they’re related to big data or not, are so loaded with competing interests and pros and cons that’s it’s hard to strike a balance that will please both sides. It’s especially difficult for slow-moving bodies such as legislatures to do this in a way that’s able to keep up with changes in technologies and societal norms (which is why we’re still debating the ECPA, which was passed in 1986).
The White House report might have ignored spying, but it only paid lip service to challenges such as balancing the need for large genomic samples with laws about protecting medical data, or the difficulty of defining terms such as “breach” and “notice” as we seek to better regulate the use of online data. We should be glad the White House is at least considering these issues, but don’t expect to see much action on anything other than the low-hanging fruit the committee highlighted anytime soon.