WH fears discrimination in ‘big data’

The Obama administration’s survey of the uses of “big data” has shown the potential for discrimination that should warrant closer scrutiny, according to White House counselor John Podesta.

In an interview with the Associated Press published on Saturday, Podesta said that the 90-day review yielded the unexpected concern that the information could lead companies to target some consumers with discriminatory practices.

President Obama called for an analysis of big data in January, when he unveiled the first round of reforms to surveillance efforts at the National Security Agency (NSA).

The collection of big data can be helpful for mapping out public health patterns, minimizing traffic congestion or helping people find the products they’re looking.

However, like the NSA’s snooping, privacy activists have worried that the collection of vast swaths of information can also expose more private details about consumers than they are looking to share.

"It was a moment to step back and say,`Does this change our basic framework or our look at the way we're dealing with records and privacy,'" Podesta told the AP about the White House survey that he led.

"With the rapidity of the way technology changes, it's going to be hard to imagine what it's going to look like a generation from now," he added. "But at least we can look out over the horizon and say, ‘Here are the trends. What do we anticipate the likely policy issues that it raises?'"

Though the AP did not outline many specific recommendations that Podesta will make to the White House, the news organization did say that he would call for an update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The 1986 law makes it legal for police to grab the contents of someone’s emails without a warrant, as long as the messages have been on the Internet for at least 180 days.

Privacy advocates have said that the law needs to be updated to keep up with the times, and they have scolded the White House for failing to respond to a petition asking for support.

The White House has held three workshops around the country on the big data challenge, and is expected to issue a report on its findings as soon as this coming week.