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The White House Survey on Big Data and Privacy Is a Good Idea but Poorly Executed

As part of President Obama’s review of Big Data and privacy, the White House has declared, “We want to hear your opinion” and posted a simple online poll to get it.

The Marketing Research Association (MRA) is pleased that the White House grasps some of the value of survey, opinion and marketing research based on their launch of this online survey effort.

However, questionnaire design is crucial to the quality of the insights you can garner from any research, and these questions are lacking. Questions about feelings toward data collection, etc., are devoid of context. Purpose matters: If someone is collecting your data for research, which aggregates the information to learn about groups, that is very different from collecting your data for purposes of spying on you, the individual, for national security or law enforcement. In addition to the different purposes of data collection and use, no mention is made of the costs and benefits to consumers and citizens.

Not only does the White House appear to ignore the importance of how data is used, it also appears to ignore the difference between the uses of data by different government agencies. The purposes of IRS data collection— normally for help in collecting taxes owed by individuals— are extremely different from the Census Bureau, which needs to collect individuals’ data in order to learn about groups of Americans. Moreover, while some government agencies regularly leak data like a sieve, the Census Bureau is the only government agency we know of that has never suffered a data breach, is a world leader in data confidentiality and is statutorily forbidden from sharing personally identifiable information with anyone else.

The White House website prefaces the survey by saying:,“This is a complicated issue that affects every American—and we want to hear your feedback.” However, the White House appears not to care about whether the input they are gathering actually comes from Americans or U.S. residents, versus anyone in the rest of the world, since there is no screening process or even questions about residency or citizenship.

Of course, the White House’s effort is obviously not a scientific survey since no effort is being made to sample respondents. Any agency that tried to run data collection this way would be unlikely to ever receive approval from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) because of flawed design, but OMB answers to the White House and not vice versa. Serious research requires industry-standard design and controls to ensure quality. Without these in place, the results are guaranteed to be inaccurate and of little to no value. The White House could instead utilize in-house Census Bureau talent, and a wide range of talented research professionals in the private sector, to make this effort worthwhile and in the best interests of all concerned, including the national interest.

photo credit: HarshLight via photopin cc

Written By

Howard Fienberg


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  • Chris Zoladz Mar 29, 2014

    Big data is so far ahead of the White House and Congress it will be years, if ever, before they catch-up.


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