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Big Data and the Future of Privacy

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"Big data" is a term for the collection of large and complex data sets and the analysis of these data sets for relationships. The quantity of data in these sets prevents traditional methods of analysis from being effective. Rather than focusing on precise relationships between individual pieces of data, big data uses various algorithms and techniques to to infer general trends over the entire set. What counts is the quantity rather than the quality. Big data looks for the correlation rather than the causation--the "what" rather than the "why."

Big data has only become possible in recent years with advances in collection, storage, and interpretation of data. The process of datafication allows for the reinterpreting of information into usable sets. Data collection--from medicine, financial institutions, social networking, and many other fields--has exploded over the past decade. And storage costs for this data have plummeted, which makes it easier to justify holding onto data instead of discarding it. These factors, along with better techniques for analyzing the data, have allowed relationships to be discovered in ways that would not have been possible in years past.

While there are many benefits to the growth of big data analytics, traditional methods of privacy protections often fail. Many notions of privacy rely on informed consent for the disclosure and use of an individual's private data. However, big data means that data is a resource that can be used and reused, often in ways that were inconceivable at the time the data was collected. Anonymity is also eroded in a big data paradigm. Even if every individual piece of information is stripped of personal information, the relationships between the individual pieces can reveal the individual's identity.

Obama Administration Big Data Review

Following the President's speech speech on reform of the National Security Agency's bulk metadata collection program under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, White House counselor John Podesta announced "a comprehensive review of the way that 'big data will affect the way we live and work; the relationship between government and citizens; and how public and private sectors can spur innovation and maximize the opportunities and free flow of this information while minimizing the risks to privacy." This was the first major privacy initiative announced by the White House since the release of the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights in 2012. The undertaking involved key officials across the federal government, including the President's Science Advisor and the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Soon after the announcement, EPIC and a coalition of consumer groups wrote a letter, to John Holdren, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. EPIC urged OSTP to provide the public an opportunity to comment and suggested that the review take into consideration (but not be limited to) the following important questions about the role of Big Data in our society:

(1) What potential harms arise from big data collection and how are these risks currently addressed?

(2) What are the legal frameworks currently governing big data, and are they adequate?

(3) How could companies and government agencies be more transparent in the use of big data, for example, by publishing algorithms?

(4) What technical measures could promote the benefits of big data while minimizing the privacy risks?

(5) What experience have other countries had trying to address the challenges of big data?

(6) What future trends concerning big data could inform the current debate?

The Big Data Privacy Report and EPIC's Public Comments

On March 4, 2014, in response to suggestions from EPIC and other consumer privacy groups, the Office of Science and Technology Policy published a Request for Information, which provides the public an opportunity to comment on the Podesta Big Data Review. EPIC submitted comments to the review, emphasizing how the current Big Data environment poses enormous risks to ordinary Americans. EPIC emphasized the data security risks and substantial risks to student privacy that exist in the current big data regulatory environment and called for the Administration to better implement the Fair Information Practices (FIPs) first set out in 1973.

Other groups comments included: Center for Democracy and Technology, The Future of Privacy Forum, The Privacy Coalition, The Internet Association, The Consumer Federation of America, and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

On May 1, 2014, the White House released the Big Data Privacy Report. The report noted that "[b]ig data technologies will be transformative in every sphere of life" and that they raise "considerable questions about how our framework for privacy protection applies in a big data ecosystem." The review also warned that "data analytics have the potential to eclipse longstanding civil rights protections in how personal information is used in housing, credit, employment, health, education, and the marketplace. Americans' relationship with data should expand, not diminish, their opportunities and potential.

The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology ("PCAST") released a report on the same day, entitled, "Big Data and Privacy: A Technological Perspective."

PCAST wrote that "[t]he challenges to privacy arise because technologies collect so much data (e.g., from sensors in everything from phones to parking lots) and analyze them so efficiently (e.g., through data mining and other kinds of analytics) that it is possible to learn far more than most people had anticipated or can anticipate given continuing progress. These challenges are compounded by limitations on traditional technologies used to protect privacy (such as de-identification). PCAST concludes that technology alone cannot protect privacy, and policy intended to protect privacy needs to reflect what is (and is not) technologically feasible."

In February 2015, the White House released an interim progress report on its big data initiative. The administration wrote that "[p]olicy development remains actively underway on complex recommendations [from the report], including extending more privacy protections to non-U.S. persons and scaling best practices in data management across government agencies."

Data Brokers

Data brokers are large commercial organizations that collect vast swaths of data on millions--and sometimes hundreds of millions--of consumers in order to resell the data or utilize it in targeted marketing campaigns. The data broker industry, by its own estimation, includes at least 3,500 to 4,000 companies. One data broker--Acxiom--has admitted to having profiles for over 500 million people worldwide including "nearly every U.S. consumer."

Recently, the data broker industry as a whole has come under a great deal of scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission and the Senate Commerce Committee. FTC Commissioner Julie Brill has announced an initiative titled "Reclaim Your Name", which is designed to promote more transparency in the data broker industry and give consumers greater control over their individual data. The Senate Commerce Committee, under the leadership of Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) undertook an examination of the data broker industry in 2013, holding hearings, hearings on the issue, and releasing a report, A Review of the Data Broker Industry: Collection, Use, and Sale of Consumer Data for Marketing Purposes of their findings. And in December 2014, the FTC brought complaint against LeapLab, a commercial data broker, accusing it of buying the payday loan applications of "financially strapped consumers" and selling their information to marketers.

In March 2015, Senators Ed Markey (D-MA), Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Senator Al Franken (D-MN), released a bill entitled The Data Broker Accountability and Transparency Act. This act is designed to provide some broad guidelines for regulating the data broker industry.

Big Data Statistics

  • Google is more than 1 million petabytes in size and processes more than 24 petabytes of data a day, a volume that is thousands of times the quantity of all printed material in the U.S. Library of Congress.
  • 32 billion searches are performed each month on Twitter.
  • More than 1 billion unique users visit YouTube each month and over 6 billion hours of video are watched each month on YouTube - that's almost an hour for every person on Earth, and 50% more than last year.
  • 90 percent of the data in the world today has been created in the past two years.
  • In 2012, data was forecasted to double every two years through the year 2020.
  • In 2020, the amount of digital data produced will exceed 40 zettabytes, which is the equivalent of 5,200 gigabytes for every man, woman and child on planet earth.
  • * 1 Gigabyte = Approximately 1 full-length feature film in digital format; 1 Petabyte= One Million Gigabytes or a Quadrillion Bytes; 1 Exabyte = One Billion Gigabytes; 1 Zettabyte = One Trillion Gigabytes or One Million Petabytes.

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