As technology advances and big data evolves, the potential for increased productivity and individual autonomy becomes more likely. Likewise, the possibilities of favoritism and decreased privacy also exist. As with any tool, it can be utilized for good or for evil. Unfortunately, big government has a long history of exploiting power it has been afforded with, suggesting that arming government with these tools would cause more harm than good.
On January 17, President Obama called for a comprehensive review of the impact big data technologies are having on a variety of activities. Its working group, consisting of senior Administration officials led by the Counselor to the President, set out to understand the relationships between those who collect data and individuals.
Big data, defined in the recent White House Report titled “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values,” as—the “growing technological ability to capture, aggregate, and process an ever-greater volume, velocity, and variety” of information—can yield both prosperous and poisonous fruits.
As with most tools, it can serve as a double edged blade depending on how it is used. If information can be transferred while retaining confidentiality, integrity, and availability, it can be stated that individual privacy and data security are respected. If, on the other hand, the collection and algorithmic analysis of data in public and private sectors is abused or misused, negative consequences are sure to follow. According to the report, this includes discrimination, data breaches, and intrusive profiles containing sensitive information.
With respect to the confidentiality of data, an extension of individual privacy, the report recognized that cryptographic technologies are useful for ensuring that only specific parties can read information. The Obama Administration spends $34 million per year on research and development projects that include anonymization techniques, confidential collaboration, and homomorphic encryption according to the White House report.
Interestingly and ironically, the National Security Agency projects Bullrun and Tor-Stinks sought to directly undermine encryption and anonymity. A 2010 Bullrun document outlined plans to “defeat the encryption used in specific network communication technologies”, while a Tor-Stinks presentation stated that “with manual analysis we can de-anonymize a very small fraction of Tor users.” Some might charge that it is a waste of tax-payer money to contribute to one program which strengthens encryption, to then fund another that weakens it. It should be noted, however, that it was not the intent of the big data report to discuss the implications of big data in signals intelligence. Rather, the benefits of technology and the quandaries of big data were examined.
While there is no doubt that the “Internet of Things” can improve the quality of education, healthcare, and other services that are fundamental to individuals, what remains to be decided is the government’s role in big data. Those who agree with the notion that government serves to “keep the peace” by making sure “our food is safe to eat,” as stated in the White House report, will likely have little problems with government embracing the big data revolution. Individuals can access their sensitive health information through Blue Button, receive tax information through Get Transcript, access energy information through Green Button, and download student loan information from MyStudentData, all of which are My Data initiatives launched in 2010 by the Obama Administration. Those who have already been startled by revelations of dragnet surveillance, on the other hand, will not appreciate the Administration’s goal of the big data revolution taking hold “across the entire government.”
The report outlined how predictive analytics within law enforcement have been used to prevent crime and analyze individual propensity to criminal activity, while ubiquitous surveillance has been used on a local level to catalog license plates. In fact, police departments have access to “surveillance tools more powerful than those used by superpowers during the Cold War,” a potentially chilling ramification for free speech and association. It should be noted, however, that predictive analytics have also been used in positive lights, like to detect medical anomalies that might not have been detected through traditional means.
Although the report recognizes the potential for abuses of power as a result of surveillance en mass, a set of recommendations were proposed to mitigate such threats. These include advancing a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, passing legislation to provide for a national breach standard, applying the Privacy Act of 1974 to non-U.S. persons, regulating data collection within schools to suit educational purposes, expanding the federal government’s technical expertise to prevent big data discrimination, and amending the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to better protect the privacy of digital content. In addition to these legislative proposals, the report highlighted technological safeguards of data tagging to determine which users can access which data for what purpose. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, might have minimal restrictions pertaining to core biographical data, but have burdensome restrictions relating to extended biographical data.
Still, skeptics of the legislative restrictions and technological safeguards cite the 2012 National Security Agency Signals Intelligence Division Oversight and Compliance report, which highlights thousands of privacy violations, some of which include spying on love interests. In addition to the failed policies of big government, proposals like the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights would seek to regulate how organizations would “collect, use, and disclose personal data.”
What is interesting about this is that one type of freedom is promoted at the expense of another. Such modes of logic serves the argument of special interests, whereby privileges are granted to one group, while rights are taken away from another. A better solution to the challenges of big data and individual privacy rests in consumer information, education, and voluntary cooperation, as opposed to increased government intervention.
Indeed, while the negative implications of big data, videlicet discrimination, data breaches, and intrusive profiles pose risks to privacy and equality, an even greater risk is posed by placing unlimited faith within government. It is truly a sign of the times when you have government reporting on big data and privacy.