White House Big Data Report Stresses Importance of Protecting Data

Two congressmen announced that they will introduce student data privacy legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives, perhaps as soon as the end of this month.

by / February 6, 2015
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

A group of senior Obama administration officials charged with examining how big data will transform the way we live and work and alter the relationships between government, citizens, businesses and consumers delivered an interim progress report to the White House Feb. 5.

The working group, spearheaded by White House counselor John Podesta, began examining the issue in January 2014. The interim report delivered yesterday details their progress to date, identifying six priority policy recommendations and a host of smaller initiatives to further the conversation about big data and privacy both inside and outside of government. Protecting student data and ensuring it’s used only for educational purposes is among the six priority areas.

“As technologies proliferate in the classroom, we must be vigilant about ensuring that students’ privacy is protected in the educational context and that their educational data is not mined for commercial or marketing purposes,” the report states.

On Thursday, Rep. Luke Messer, R-Idaho, and Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., announced that they will introduce student-data-privacy legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives, perhaps as soon as the end of this month. The legislation will seek to protect student privacy in school while continuing to embrace the innovative educational potential of new technologies to improve student outcomes.

“It’s imperative that we have a strong federal privacy legislation to protect our students,” said privacy attorney Bradley S. Shear. “It’s great that students can take advantage of technology-based advanced learning opportunities, but we must be assured that their data is not used against them or mined for other purposes later.”

In the report, Podesta noted that one novel finding of the working group was the potential for big data technologies to circumvent longstanding civil rights protections and enable new forms of discrimination in housing and employment, and access to credit, among other areas.

In response, the working group is also examining how big data may inadvertently or deliberately lead to discriminatory outcomes, and what policy mechanisms may be needed to respond. For example, the White House Council of Economic Advisers recently conducted a study examining whether and how companies may use big data technologies to offer different prices to different consumers — a practice known as “discriminatory pricing.” The CEA found that many companies already use big data for targeted marketing, but this practice is not yet widespread.

“Big data technologies raise serious concerns about how we protect personal privacy and our other values,” stated the report. “As more data is collected, analyzed and stored on both public and private systems, we must be vigilant in ensuring the balance of power is retained between government and citizens, and between businesses and consumers.”

Privacy is of particular concern for the federal government in light of recent reports that personal data from the insurance exchange website HealthCare.gov were being shared with third parties. More than 50 companies are reported to have gained access to the personal information -- including names, ZIP codes, pregnancy status, age, income, smoking habits and Internet protocol address — of millions of Americans.

Justine Brown Contributing Writer