A "Green Light" for more Data Collection: Examining the White House Big data report [Part 1]

Two reports were released by the White House yesterday on Big Data.  The first was one led by John Podesta (working with former Google/Twitter privacy official Nicole Wong) and the second by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology [PCAST].

As we said yesterday, it's been more than 2 years since the White House promised privacy legislation would be introduced {"We Can't Wait"]--this new BIg Data report further prolongs the process of learning precisely where the Adm. stands.  Meanwhile, the Administration has relied on corporate lobbyist dominated "stakeholder" sessions at the Commerce Department to develop self-regulatory privacy codes---a process that has failed to address actual data collection practices.  While it's true that the last 2-3 years has seen growth in more pervasive Big Data techniques, this problem has been in the making for years; if the Administration has been focused on the data collection market in the first place, it would have addressed it in its 2012 consumer privacy Bill of Rights call for action.

As Prof. Joe Turow from U Penn says, the online marketing system is one of discrimination: you can either be on its good or bad side.  The report narrowly focuses the debate on a handful of problematic practices, such as housing (which is important).  But the overall commercial system of collecting a tremendous amount of data on a person and continually tracking, analyzing and targeting them (which Merkle, the data company, calls "connected recognition") should have been critiqued.  The two reports should have more forthright about the realities of the commercial data collection system, where industry-run standards groups have embedded personalized and group data collection in all the interconnected applications and services.  How does the White House believe cross-platform tracking has developed, where a company can follow an individual from their PC to mobile device to a gaming platform?  It was done by design, to permit microtargeting of users regardless of where they are or go. Nor were the various ways the online marketing industry collects data from inidviduals, including neuromarketing, social media surveillance, hyper-local tracking, etc. addressed.  And, since the Obama campaign and both political parties use all these data collection tools, they should have acknowledged their own roles embracing these intrusive techniques. 

The PCAST's recommendation [see below] that data be collected, analyzed and only then should problems be addressed is fundamentally flawed.  We should not permit the mass collection of data on individuals--this is being done as part of corporate business models that can and should be changed.  Collect first and ask questions later (and likely never) is not sound public policy for a democracy.

PCAST Recommendation 1. "Policy attention should focus more on the actual uses of big data and less on its collection and analysis. By actual uses, we mean the specific events where something happens that can cause an adverse consequence or harm to an individual or class of individuals. In the context of big data, these events (“uses”) are almost always actions of a computer program or app interacting either with the raw data or with the fruits of analysis of those data. In this formulation, it is not the data themselves that cause the harm, nor the program itself (absent any data), but the confluence of the two. These “use” events (in commerce, by government, or by individuals) embody the necessary specificity to be the subject of regulation. By contrast, PCAST judges that policies focused on the regulation of data collection, storage, retention, a priori limitations on applications, and analysis (absent identifiable actual uses of the data or products of analysis) are unlikely to yield effective strategies for improving privacy. Such policies would be unlikely to be scalable over time, or to be enforceable by other than severe and economically damaging measures."

PS re above:  Google Exec Chairman Eric Schmidt is a member of PCAST.

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