'Big data' review to focus on private sector

A White House-ordered privacy review group will focus its attention on the private sector's use of data, rather than the government's, according to the group’s leader.

By focusing on companies, the group hopes to “get a more holistic view of the state of the technology,” John Podesta, White House counselor, said Monday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Podesta was charged with leading the government review of “big data” earlier this year, as President Obama announced plans to reform government surveillance programs. Monday’s event is the first of three university-based events being co-hosted by Podesta’s review group.

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The review group has roughly three months to produce a report analyzing the state of “big data” practices, predict future uses and determine how well current policies fit with those practices and uses.

Although the review was announced as Obama focused on reforming government surveillance practices, including at the National Security Agency, Podesta said Monday that his group will focus on the private sector, while others will focus on the public sector.

The reviews of government surveillance programs are happening on a “somewhat separate track,” Podesta said, pointing to a White House-ordered review being led by Attorney General Eric Holder and members of the intelligence community.

By “looking at this beyond just the intelligence community,” the big data review group “may help inform intelligence policy going forward,” Podesta said, “but really I think that these are parallel tracks.”

Podesta said his review will focus on whether policy updates are needed to account for the vast amounts of data that can be collected and analyzed due to advances in technology, including the capabilities of the Internet.

“There is more data than ever before and [there are] no signs that the trajectory is slowing its upward pace,” he said, pointing to Facebook and YouTube uploads.

“We want to explore whether there’s something truly new in the vast collection of data and lightning-speed analytics.”

Podesta said that the review process will engage with “a broad range” of stakeholders, including members of the international community. 

Some international governments, including members of the European Union and Brazil, have called for limitations on the presence of U.S. tech companies in the hopes of keeping their citizens’ data out of the hands of U.S. intelligence agencies. 

Podesta pledged to push back against those kinds of proposals.

That kind of segregation of the Internet “would be a mistake with respect to both the capacity for innovation but also for the free flow of information and ideas,” he said.

“We’ll be looking to hear from them … but I remain convinced that we can find a way to sort of accommodate each other’s perspective,” he said, pointing to ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and European countries over an agreement that allows U.S. tech companies to process data belonging to European citizens.

“I think that those discussions have been positive, so I think we just need to find a way that’s appropriate for both … cultures,” Podesta said.

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