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The promises and pitfalls of big data

Everyone wants to regulate big data, but few want to be regulated themselves

May 8, 2014 1:00AM ET

Last week saw the release of the much-heralded White House report on “big data,” the use of math to discover insights from vast databases of information. The document is the culmination of several months of sustained work by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to understand the revolutionary possibilities and risks of these new technologies.

Big data technology is the basis of software tools such as Google Search and the product-recommendation engines of companies like Netflix and Amazon. Like so much of the digital revolution we’re living through, big data promises and threatens much. It promises to cure disease, make our roads safer and keep us safe from crime and terrorism. Yet it also threatens a world of total monitoring, digital discrimination and centralization of wealth and power in favor of the few institutions that wield its tools. Despite its immense promise, it threatens to devastate our social commitments to equality, privacy and consumer protection. What can be done to harness its potential while mitigating its dangers?

Prompted by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations, the White House decided to take stock of the possibilities and pitfalls of big data use. It solicited comments from the public and hosted constructive public workshops at MIT, NYU and UC Berkeley to study the technological, ethical and legal dimensions of the problem. (Full disclosure: I participated in and helped facilitate discussions at one of those meetings.) 

There’s a lot to like about the final White House report. It comprehensively surveys many of the big data issues, and it makes a number of important recommendations, such as ensuring a consumer privacy bill of rights, national data breach legislation, greater protection against data-based discrimination and better privacy protections for students, non-U.S. persons and all of our electronic communications.

So far, so good. But notably lacking from the survey and the recommendations is any serious discussion of national security, or the National Security Agency’s secretive uses of big data as part of its antiterror and cyberwar operations. This is particularly curious given that we’re talking about big data largely because of Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance. Big data, the White House seems to be saying, is a problem for the private sector, not for government.

People won’t use technology they don’t trust. Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it.

Brad Smith

General counsel for Microsoft

The White House report stands in contrast to another document that made news earlier this year: an open letter from many of the giant technology companies to President Barack Obama about big-data-based government surveillance. Also prompted by the Snowden revelations, the letter argued that government surveillance of personal data held by cloud and Internet companies undermined the customer trust on which their businesses depend.

“People won’t use technology they don’t trust,” Microsoft’s General Counsel Brad Smith said. “Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it.”

Among other things, the technologists' letter called for limits on the government’s ability to collect personal data and for greater transparency, oversight and accountability over government collection and use of data. Requirements like these are essential if we want to preserve our values during the digital revolution.

The tech giants and government bureaucrats make similar arguments. Both sides agree that big data will be a powerful tool. Both acknowledge that it also poses a real threat to core social values such as equality, privacy and freedom of speech. Both call for accountability in how our data is collected and used. Both, however, appear to believe that responsibility for these things lies elsewhere. The government tells us to worry about corporations, while those same corporations raise the specter of Big Brother. And while the titans bicker, the public remains subject to big data intrusion protected by few legal or ethical rules.

What, then, is the answer? Much of the answer lies in developing ethics for big data — legal and professional guidelines and limits for government and corporate uses of it. The American public need rules to make sure we can take advantage of big data’s benefits, while making sure big data isn’t used to take advantage of us.

Finger-pointing and blame-shifting about big data teaches us that both corporations and government are part of the problem. They also need to be part of the solution. We need the government to regulate potentially troublesome corporate data uses through laws such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which has kept the dangers of credit data in check for over four decades. We need to give the Federal Trade Commission greater powers to oversee unfair and deceptive data practices, and to ensure that our sensitive personal information is held securely, ethically and only for the purposes for which it was collected in the first place.

As for private industry, we need companies, too, to reform their practices. They need to recognize that privacy remains essential to their customers — that protecting privacy can be as important as price and performance. They need to give users meaningful control over how their data is collected and used, and to be transparent about their data practices. At the same time, they need to resist government surveillance of personal data held in the cloud, and to continue to hold government to account on surveillance questions, just as they resisted bad proposed laws such as the Stop Online Privacy Act and the Protect IP Act.

During our last technology revolution, the Industrial Revolution, citizens, corporations and government — after far too long and hard a struggle — ultimately worked together to set rules of the road for safe and equal working conditions, safe products and environmental protections. Tech companies and government officials need to end their big data blame game and work together to develop once again a new ethics for a new age, so that our digital future will be better than our industrial past.

Here are two immediate steps: First, let’s stop the finger-pointing and start taking big data responsibly as users, technologists and lawmakers. Second, let’s do what the technologists and government officials say. Let’s impose the technologists’ demands on the government, and impose the government’s demands on the technologists. They are the experts, after all.

Neil M. Richards is a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and an internationally recognized expert in privacy and technology law. His writings include “Four Privacy Myths,” “The Dangers of Surveillance” and “Intellectual Privacy.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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