7 Things to Know About the White House Big Data Report

Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values focuses on how the public and private sectors can maximize the benefits of big data while minimizing its risks.

by / May 2, 2014
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A group of senior Obama administration officials delivered a report to the White House on May 1 examining how big data will transform the way we live and work, and how it will alter the relationships between government, citizens, businesses and consumers. The report, Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values, is the outcome of a 90-day study announced by President Obama in his Jan. 17, 2014 remarks on the review of signals intelligence.

Policy Recommendations

To complement the study’s in depth analysis, the study’s authors identified six policy recommendations which they said “deserved prompt administration attention and policy development.” Here are their recommended policy actions from the report:

  1. Advance the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. The Department of Commerce should take appropriate consultative steps to seek stakeholder and public comment on big data developments and how they impact the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights and then devise draft legislative text for consideration by stakeholders and submission by the President to Congress. 
  2. Pass National Data Breach Legislation. Congress should pass legislation that provides for a single national data breach standard along the lines of the Admin-istration’s May 2011 Cybersecurity legislative proposal. 
  3. Extend Privacy Protections to non-U.S. Persons. The Office of Management and Budget should work with departments and agencies to apply the Privacy Act of 1974 to non-U.S. persons where practicable, or to establish alternative privacy policies that apply appropriate and meaningful protections to personal information regardless of a person’s nationality. 
  4. Ensure Data Collected on Students in School is Used for Educational Purposes. The federal government must ensure that privacy regulations protect students against having their data being shared or used inappropriately, especially when the data is gathered in an educational context. 
  5. Expand Technical Expertise to Stop Discrimination. The federal government’s lead civil rights and consumer protection agencies should expand their technical expertise to be able to identify practices and outcomes facilitated by big data analytics that have a discriminatory impact on protected classes, and develop a plan for investigating and resolving violations of law. 
  6. Amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Congress should amend ECPA 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. 
The effort was spearheaded by White House counselor John Podesta, who led a working group of senior administration officials in creating the report. The working group also engaged hundreds of stakeholders from industry, academia, civil society and the federal government through briefings at the White House.

The report focuses on how the public and private sectors can maximize the benefits of big data while minimizing its risks. It also identifies opportunities for big data to grow the economy, improve health and education, and make the nation safer and more energy efficient. One section of the report focuses exclusively on public-sector management of data, including implications for health-care delivery, education, homeland security and law enforcement.

Though a variety of observations and recommendations were presented, here are seven of the notable takeaways unearthed in the findings:

1. Big Data is Inevitable

According to the report, “The big data revolution will take hold across the entire government, not merely in departments and agencies that already have missions involving science and technology.”

The report projects that departments and agencies that have not historically made wide use of advanced data analytics have perhaps the most significant opportunity to harness big data to benefit the citizens they serve.

2. Big Data is Transformational at All Levels of Government

The report underscored that the power of big data does not stop at the federal level, but will be equally transformational for states and municipalities, pointing to New York City’s Office of Data Analytics and Chicago’s SmartData project as examples of some of the most innovative uses of big data to improve service delivery.

3. Privacy Needs Reforms

One action item identified by the report is reforming the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which drew support from a number of technology groups, including TechAmerica and the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI).

“We are extremely pleased that the White House has chosen with this paper to back several reforms that the technology industry has been backing for years, namely creating a national data breach law and reforms to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act,” said Mike Hettinger, senior vice president for Federal Government Affairs and Public Sector for TechAmerica.

ITI Vice President for Global Privacy Policy and General Counsel Yael Weinman echoed that sentiment. “We applaud that this report points to ECPA reform as a priority,” he said. “Reform is critical to address the concerns that Americans have about law enforcement having access to their online information. ITI will continue to advocate that this statute be updated to require law enforcement to obtain a warrant, without carve outs, to gain access to online content.”

4. A New Era of Customized Learning

While privacy safeguards were foundational in education, and especially with children, authors duly noted that big data could spell substantial breakthroughs in learning in future years. The ability to process and analyze large volumes of student data, they said, would lead to an increase in personalized teaching methods through network-enabled devices. This personalized learning experience will be seen at all levels of learning. Big data education is expected to be supported by the president’s ConnectED initiative, which will connect 99 percent of U.S. students to high-speed broadband and wireless internet within five years.

5. Predictive Analytics is Not the Be All, End All

The study advised that though predictive analytics is a valuable resource, it should not be a sole determinant to prove guilt; it must respect all rights and freedoms of citizens. As an essential requisite,  authors said big data analysis conducted by law enforcement should be isolated to criminal investigations and protect individual privacy and civil liberties — a task to require careful monitoring.

“To prevent chilling effects to Constitutional rights of free speech and association, the public must be aware of the existence, operation and efficacy of such programs,” authors stated.

6. Big Data is the New National Resource

Similar to the way land wilderness was gradually acknowledged as a national resource, the report labeled the rise of big data as a national resource. As such, it was urged that data, like any other significant resource, should be protected through secure storage while simultaneously made readily available to the public, as it is deployed for economic prosperity and social good. As an application of this mindset, open data initiatives to release valuable data sets was encouraged. Data.gov, the national repository of federal data tools and resources, was highlighted as a vehicle to preserve and utilize big data.

7. Big Data Requires Investment, Resources

As the saying goes, you get something for something and nothing for nothing. This notion holds true for big data just like anything else, the report said. Departments and agencies were recommended to match data to resources in terms of staff, internal education efforts and financial investment. The Obama administration was told it should lead an effort to identify areas where big data analytics can provide the greatest impact to benefit Americans, and to encourage data scientists to develop social, ethical and policy knowledge. Areas where that showed promise for research included an investigation of data sources, de-identification and encryption, and data tools that can be used by consumers.