Obama adviser Podesta promises full vetting of big data's impact on privacy

The senior White House counselor is leading a study group whose findings could influence policy changes

Work is well underway on a study of big data technologies' impact on privacy rights, a senior Obama administration official said Monday, stopping short of saying that substantive new policy changes could be around the corner.

President Barack Obama announced a 90-day-long study during a speech in January, when he also discussed changes to national security practices after former National Security Administration contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents about domestic surveillance programs.

"We are undergoing a revolution in the way that information about our purchases, our conversations, our social networks, our movements, and even our physical identities are collected, stored, analyzed and used," said White House senior counselor John Podesta during an event at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The immense volume, diversity, velocity, and potential value of data will have profound implications for privacy, the economy and public policy."

The study group "will consider all those issues and specifically how the present and future state of these technologies might motivate us to revisit our policies across a range of sectors," Podesta added.

Big data analysis can have serious value, such as for genome research and education, he said.

Podesta's group will weigh whether the Obama administration's Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, which was introduced in 2012, "fully addresses the changes that today we refer to as the big data revolution," Podesta said. Obama wants to determine whether "our existing privacy framework can accommodate these changes, or if there are new avenues for policy that we need to consider," he added.

Along with the study Podesta's group is conducting, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology is undertaking one "to explore in-depth the technological dimensions of the intersection of big data and privacy," Podesta said.

Podesta's group has met with privacy advocates, academics and government agencies, and over the next several weeks is soliciting feedback from private companies, especially ones that do large amounts of data collection, Podesta said.

The group will also reach out to international officials and wants the general public to get involved as well, he added. "This is not a discussion that should be confined to Washington or academia."

While it's not likely the study group will come up with a major new set of privacy policy proposals within the 90-day period, "we expect this work to serve as the foundation for a robust and forward-looking plan of action," Podesta said.

During a question-and-answer session, Podesta was careful to make clear that his group's efforts aren't directly related to the review of surveillance practices by U.S. intelligence agencies. That work is "ongoing" by the U.S. Department of Justice and intelligence officials, he said.

The Podesta working group's findings "may help inform intelligence policy going forward, but really I think these are parallel tracks and proceeding as the president has ordered," he said.

Big data technology moves away from "predicated" data analysis, wherein an analyst combs through an information store to uncover things they already know to be there, versus "non-predicated or pattern-based searches," which "find patterns that reveal new insights," Podesta said during his prepared remarks. "I think we need to be conscious of the implications for individuals. How should we think about individuals' sense of their identity when data reveals things they didn't even know about themselves?"

To this end, Podesta fielded a question about whether the practice of pattern-based searching clashes with the Fourth Amendment, which demands that law enforcement have probable cause for searches.

It's a "challenging question," Podesta said. "That's something we really want to engage with Fourth Amendment experts, law enforcement and the public at large to think through. I don't have a full answer. That's what this study is trying to accomplish. Hopefully in 90 days we'll have something more specific to say."

Monday's event at MIT is the first in a number of ones planned at academic institutions in coming weeks.

Podesta delivered his remarks via telephone due to a winter storm that snarled air traffic in the Washington, D.C., area Monday.

"Big data squared off against big snow and big snow won," he quipped.

U.S. Commerce Secretary and study group member Penny Pritzker also spoke Monday.

The free flow of information is "good for business and good for society as a whole," said Pritzker, who successfully made the trek to Cambridge.

However, "all that potential hinges on one thing: trust," she added. "Trust is absolutely necessary for any data-driven business to succeed. Put another way, all the data in the world is worthless unless customers trust the business they buy from."

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris' email address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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