Big Data and Privacy: Reporting to President Obama
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In January of 2014, President Obama tasked his counselor John Podesta to research the issue of information privacy. Two reports followed.
Which was signed by John Podesta, Counselor to the President, as well as Secretaries of Commerce and Energy, and Directors of Office of Science & Technology Policy and the National Economic Council.
The other report is signed by the co-chairmen of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and is entitled
While both address the pressing issues regarding proliferation of information and the ensuing intersection of privacy, the former report is broad interpretation in scope with White House lens. The latter PCAST report was intended to focus on technical perspective, but as could be expected, the technology itself is not so much the issue as the use thereof.
Both groups were directed to respond within 90 days. As directed, PCAST provided a broad survey of the capability of Big Data before soon digging deeper. Although tagged as a technical perspective, the potential intersection of policy was immediately addressed because continuous iterative change to Big Data capability is not easily pinned down to the here and now. The continued expansion of Big Data use in the United States and throughout the world needs a Big Stick as well.
Examining any current issue isn’t complete without reviewing potential cases from the past for lessons learned. PCAST explained how Big Data and privacy are an extension of the conversation begun with wire technology – telegram, telephone, and radio.
Imagine Paul Revere’s ride – that was emergency mass communication for the colonial era. Ben Franklin’s federal postal system was considered an intrusion on private messaging at first. Imagine the Wild, Wild West and all the space between people. Sometimes the receiving end might not be there by the time of the arriving information. Wire technology – mysteriously transmitting words instantly – was heavily critiqued. That technology is where Privacy and Technology emerged in legal proceedings.
Not an Inalienable Right
US law has no overt “Right to privacy”. Although the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence declares the Right to the Pursuit of Happiness, it is not included per se in the Bill of Rights (but neither is “life” or “liberty” verbatim). The Bill of Rights was heavily debated itself, as a faction of the Constitutional writers contended that having to define specific individual liberties limited them – ipso facto. Privacy echoes that consideration.
The right to privacy is held in the courts. Case law upholds the “right to be left alone.” The case histories include keeping one’s own stuff personal as well as the right to share one’s own stuff privately, without government intervention or eavesdropping.
Born that way
Moving back to the technology itself, the PCAST report defines information in several categories, including “born digital” or “born analog.” Born digital, data created digitally, carries the danger of “over-collection” or collection beyond intended purpose. I agree that there is a significant danger that data collected for one purpose can be utilized for ill means, but this challenge is hardly a digital birth. Think Greeks bearing gifts.
Born analog is data that “arises from characteristics of the physical world,” then impressed into the digital realm. Data fusion from different sources is considered another category altogether. These categories almost become moot in an Internet of Things (IoT) world. Where analog and digital stop and start blurs daily.
The PCAST posits four data security practices that have already degraded significantly.
- ANONYMIZATION. Anonymizing data is a prevalent practice of stripping personally identifying facets from within a data set. Commonly used to transfer critical information quickly (banking, personnel, etc), the prevalence of Big Data capability is making it harder to anonymize data because more pieces of identity can be put together to complete the puzzle with just a missing piece.
- DATA DELETION. The interconnection of data that we readily use to share and make our lives easier makes it that much harder to ever delete any digital information completely.
- META TAGGING. Increasingly complex meta tagging system (the data that describes the data, like date and time collected) again better enables putting together missing pieces.
- NOTICE & CONSENT. Notice & consent is the disclaimer you acquiesce whenever you check the block to access an app, a device, a digital service, a physical service. Who reads them anymore? Who reads them EVERY time? The preponderance of legal scroll is loosing its validity through inequitable burden on the consumer to understand a law disproportionate to the assumption. It was a good idea – a handshake at first piled on with legal clauses to create a shotgun wedding.
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