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The White House remains committed to an open, reliable Internet but understands it requires the application of “timeless privacy values to this technology,” as has been the case with each generational shift in modes of communication, from the telephone to e-mail.

That was part of the message from White House Counselor John Podesta in his keynote address at MIT’s event, “Big Data Privacy: Advancing the State of Art in Technology and Practice,” following recent orders from President Barack Obama to closely study the advantages and pitfalls of Big Data. Podesta phoned the keynote in after heavy snow in DC grounded him there. The event was cohosted by the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy and is part of a series of workshops organized by the MIT Big Data Initiative at CSAIL and the MIT Information Policy Project.

The Obama administration aims to gain a more holistic view of Big Data, including the ways in which it’s “altering the landscape of how data is conventionally used” and the impact such use may have on traditional notions of privacy given its “immense volume, velocity and potential value,” Podesta said.

The amount of data available online is rapidly increasing, and that trajectory shows no signs of slowing down, Podesta said, citing the 2.4 billion Internet users worldwide who contribute to the 350 million photos uploaded to Facebook each day and the 100 hours of video uploaded every minute to YouTube. That’s not even considering the nascent stage of the Internet of Things, which will produce more online data than ever before.

Deriving value from such data sets requires sophisticated technologies that will no doubt produce innovative solutions to some of society’s greatest ailments, Podesta said, citing the National Institutes of Health’s Cancer Genome Atlas Data Portal, which allows researchers to sift through Big Data to understand the molecular basis of cancer and which found a relationship between ovarian and breast cancer cells that could aid treatment of the diseases.

But there are risks when  dealing with that kind of sensitive data, and the Obama administration’s inquiry aims to be sure the appropriate modes of protecting privacy are found, whether the solutions are technical, computational or societal, “both for government and society as a whole,” Podesta said.

Obama wants Podesta, stakeholders and the general public—via a link on the White House’s website—to provide feedback on whether the existing privacy framework in the U.S. can accommodate Big Data, or if new avenues should be considered and new funding is warranted.

“We need to be conscious of the implications to individuals,” he said. “Big Data reveals things about them they didn’t even know about themselves. We want to explore the capabilities of Big Data analytics but also the social and political implications of that.”

He remained vague, however, on whether national regulation is a possibility.

“Today’s conference … is part of a 90-day endeavor to provide a firm grounding in the current state of technologies and their likely trajectories,” Podesta said. “But the administration is not starting from scratch when it comes to Big Data and privacy.”

Podesta said the U.S. can be proud of its long history as a leader when it comes to information privacy, starting with the Fair Information Practice Principles of the Privacy Act of 1974. And he noted the platform which, since 2009, has allowed users to access Big Data sets on a wide range of topics, and the Open Government Initiative, which aims to unlock government data for the greater good of public health, energy, education, finance and global development.

Podesta said he recently met with leaders in higher education to look at the use of Big Data in academic performance.

“Big Data helps gain insights not previously possible on student learning outcomes,” he said. “But there are privacy implications to be considered when gathering and using this data.”

While educators working on a recent Big Data project knew the individual students working on a test, researchers chose not to collect their demographic data due to privacy and ethical concerns, he said. However, perhaps demographic data would have provided meaningful insights that could have resulted in helping individual students’ needs.

“There are great gains to be made in Big Data,” he said. “We need to look at where government can play a role in supporting this work while continuing to promote individual privacy.”

Podesta asked those attending or livestreaming the event to look closely at the following questions, which he said the White House itself has been examining:

  • What is genuinely new about Big Data and what should be revisited because of those changes?
  • What business models most depend on Big Data today, and how will that change in the next five to 15 years?
  • What uses of Big Data could help improve social or economic outcomes or productivity?
  • Can we build additional privacy protections into the Big Data functions of analytics, and should the government invest more toward that end?

Again, Podesta said feedback should be sent to the White House, but it’s unclear where that feedback should be directed. Podesta says updates will be posted here.

Editor’s Note: The IAPP staff could not uncover this Big Data Feedback link on the White House site, despite our best efforts.


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