As part of President Obama’s review of government data collection in light of privacy and liberty interests, the White House has asked the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) to conduct a detailed study of big data analytics and its potential effect on privacy. This review will be led by John Podesta, special advisor to the president, who will focus on the relationship between government and citizens, as well as input and innovation from public and private sectors.
In the first 90 days of the study, Mr. Podesta’s team will consult with industry, civil liberties groups, technologists, privacy experts, international partners, and other national and local government officials to better identify technological changes to keep an eye on, and whether these changes require further action or research.
The catalyst behind this and other related actions by the White House appear to stem from the disclosures last summer by Edward Snowden regarding the National Security Agency’s (NSA) broad surveillance projects. While the documents revealed by Mr. Snowden did not directly address the impact of big data analytics on privacy interests, they have spurred a growing awareness among citizens and businesses of privacy issues in general. This general awareness has led to calls for reform of NSA collection practices, as well as a national conversation about technology and privacy.
Mr. Podesta stated that
[w]e are undergoing a revolution in the way that information about our purchases, our conversations, our social networks, our movements, and even our physical identities are collected, stored, analyzed and used. The immense volume, diversity and potential value of data will have profound implications for privacy, the economy, and public policy. The working group will consider all those issues, and specifically how the present and future state of these technologies might motivate changes in our policies across a range of sectors.
Any recommendations that follow from the PCAST review will likely have traction within the White House, but it remains to be seen whether any new legislation is possible in near term. Either way, this exercise is sure to further the national conversation on privacy matters, and may provide an opportunity to frame future debate on this important topic.