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White House: ‘Big Data’ Could Cause Discrimination

7 May, 2014 By: Doug McPherson

WASHINGTON – The White House says in its new “Big Data” report that personalized ads and content have “the power to deliver exactly the right message, product or service to consumers before they even ask” but that it can also reflect discrimination that causes “real harm to individuals.”

The report, commissioned earlier this year by President Obama, examines the use of data in a several contexts – from how scientists draw on data to study diseases to the use of clickstream data by marketers.

“The fusion of many different kinds of data, processed in real time,” the report says. “Unfortunately, ‘perfect personalization’ also leaves room for subtle and not-so-subtle forms of discrimination in pricing, services and opportunities.”

The report offers research by Latanya Sweeney, who has studied online discrimination. Sweeney, who now serves as chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), reported last year that Google searches for black-identifying names, like “DeShawn and Darnell,” were more likely to generate ads that contain the word “arrest” than searches for white-identity names, like “Geoffrey and Jill.”

“It’s clear that outcomes like these, by serving up different kinds of information to different groups, have the potential to cause real harm to individuals, whether they are pursuing a job, purchasing a home, or simply searching for information,” the report says.

The report also backs “do not track” mechanisms that can help consumers prevent some data collection. “Strengthening these tools is especially important because there is now a growing array of technologies available for recording individual actions, behavior and location data across a range of services and devices,” the report says.

The report recommends that the Commerce Department move forward on developing a privacy “bill of rights” by seeking public comment on how to “support the innovations of big data while at the same time responding to its risks.”

It also suggests data brokers develop programs to allow consumers to wield more control over how information about them is used. “The data services industry should follow the lead of the online advertising and credit industries and build a common website or online portal that lists companies, describes their data practices, and provides methods for consumers to better control how their information is collected and used or to opt-out of certain marketing uses,” the report states.

Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced related legislation earlier this year. The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) said it opposed the bill, arguing that legislation isn’t necessary, and would ultimately “hurt consumers by limiting choices and raising prices.”

Some reactions to the White House report:

  • “The U.S. government’s view of ‘Big Data’ has been mired in 20th-century thinking, and must evolve to balance big data’s socially beneficial uses with recognition of today’s privacy and security realities. We’re glad to see the report touch on this, though as we indicated in our comments to the White House, this is only the beginning of a longer discussion. In the meantime, we strongly urge the Obama administration to stay focused on surveillance reform to help restore trust on the Internet.”  – Mozilla executive Alex Fowler
  • “It [the report] should have called for a national debate on whether the pervasive data collection, tracking and targeting system should be tolerated in the first place. We are concerned that the report may give a green light to expanded data collection, where the principle is collect first and worry about privacy and consumer protection later.” – Jeff Chester, executive director of the privacy-advocacy organization Center for Digital Democracy
  • “The report is a full-barrel effort to move the dialogue forward in a way that demonstrates a deep commitment to the benefits of ‘Big Data,’ while at the same time balancing appropriate concerns about privacy.” – Jules Polonetsky, co-chair and executive director of the industry-funded think tank Future of Privacy Forum
  • “DMA is pleased to hear the White House recognize the value that data has for consumers and the nation’s economy. We continue to believe that self-regulation is the appropriate approach to address complex, dynamic data policy issues.” – Peggy Hudson, senior vice president of government affairs, DMA

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