The White House is calling on U.S. lawmakers to pass legislation that will both strengthen the safeguards against corporate and governmental misuse of consumers' private data, but also open the door to recording and using more of it on an everyday basis.
On Thursday, the White House published a report by John Podesta with recommendations on what should be done with so-called "big data" — the ubiquitous pieces of data, transmitted and logged by electronic devices that can be used to monitor everything from somewhat benevolent things like gauging consumer habits and monitoring traffic flow, to eavesdropping on telephone records and outright spying.
President Barack Obama tasked Podesta in January with compiling a list of recommendations for what sort of laws should be put into place to ensure that the benefits of harvesting that data remain open, while putting a lid on some of the more disconcerting potential uses.
'Potential for big data analytics to lead to discriminatory outcomes and to circumvent longstanding civil rights protections in housing, employment, credit, and the consumer marketplace' - Big data report
That was a response to some of the allegations that came to light in the Edward Snowden and Wikileaks data dumps, where citizens of democracies the world over got a jarring reminder of how much of their personal data was being monitored — and by who.
The report is quick to note that not all instances of data use have a nefarious purpose, and many provide undeniable societal goods.
"The big data revolution presents incredible opportunities in virtually every sector of the economy and every corner of society," the report reads, "But big data raises serious questions, too, about how we protect our privacy and other values in a world where data collection is increasingly ubiquitous and where analysis is conducted at speeds approaching real time."
"By collecting and analyzing millions of data points from a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit," it notes, "one study was able to identify factors, like slight increases in body temperature and heart rate, that serve as early warning signs an infection may be taking root — subtle changes that even the most experienced doctors wouldn't have noticed on their own."
Jet engines and delivery trucks now routinely come with sensors to alert a central dispatch automatically of any problems that may need mechanical attention. And the North American power grid uses big data to predict periods of peak electric demand, adjusting itself to be more efficient and potentially averting brown-outs.
Less beneficial, however, is the standard practice of having consumers blindly sign over permission to use far more private information than is realistically needed, when signing terms-of-service for websites and software. And the paper singled out "the potential for big data analytics to lead to discriminatory outcomes and to circumvent longstanding civil rights protections in housing, employment, credit, and the consumer marketplace."
Civil rights leaders have raised concerns about the potential for employers who use data to map where job applicants live will then rate them based on the time it would take to get to work, particularly in low-paying service jobs.
The U.S. president has already called for changes to some of the National Security Agency's surveillance programs that amass large amounts of data belonging to Americans and foreigners. Just this week, the topic made headlines in Canada with revelations that Ottawa and other governments were routinely asking telecom firms for reams of data on customers, and that the customers were happily handing it over, whether it was warranted or not.
Many American companies have acknowledged they are tracking an astounding amount of data, but public pronouncements from major tech companies like Google and Apple suggest that they are open to more rules to define what data is allowed to be monitored, by who, and for what reason.
Some of the same shreds of data that are making financial records, health care delivery and even traffic patterns more efficient are also being exploited in ways the world is only vaguely aware of.
Strengthening privacy for emails, for example, could provide more protections in the course of a law enforcement investigation. Under the current U.S. law, in many cases the government can access emails without getting a warrant from a judge. Many consider that 1986 law to be outdated, and the recommendation represents the first clear message from the Obama administration that it supports updating the electronic communications law.
"We have artificial differences and archaic distinctions ....that need to be rectified," Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said.
Data-breach legislation possible
The White House is also renewing its call for national data-breach legislation, which could have more resonance after hackers lifted personal data from millions of shoppers at Target and Nieman Marcus in recent months. The legislation would cull the patchwork of state laws into a single federal requirement for how data breaches should be reported to consumers and law enforcement.
Broadly, he report's recommendations break down into six broad areas. That includes passing a data breach law that would force companies to reveal when they've been the subject of a cyber-attack such as the one that stole millions of account numbers from retailer Target last fall. Currently, there's no legal compulsion to reveal that information.
The report also calls for new laws to protect students and clearly define what information is being stored and why from consumers, ensuring data is not used for discriminatory purposes. It also wants to extend those rights to non-U.S. citizens in the U.S.
The recommendations aren't binding, but they do give an insight as to the White House's views on the topic. And they put pressure on other branches of the U.S. government to similarly show their hands.