More data, more promise, more questions

The White House’s big data and privacy working group cites progress, but acknowledges that big challenges lie ahead.

Shutterstock image: beacon of data.

An interim progress report on the Obama administration's data initiatives released Feb. 5 is upbeat, saying big data holds "enormous promise" as a method to "streamline public services, but also notes that the "nearly ubiquitous" collection of data poses potential threats to privacy.

"Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values" found that the declining cost of data collection, storage and processing, combined with the additional sources of data coming in from sensors, cameras and geospatial technologies, means data collection is now routine, data retention can be virtually permanent, and data analysis can be done in real time.

The study, prepared by the big data and privacy working group, details government-wide efforts to implement recommendations laid out in the group's May 2014 report, whose authors include Counselor to the President John Podesta, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, science advisor John Holdren, economic advisor Jeff Zients and other senior officials.

But a senior White House advisor cautioned that success carries with it new challenges.

"Those technologies raise concerns about how we protect personal privacy and other important values," Podesta said in a conference call after the report was released. "As more data is collected, analyzed and stored in public and private systems we need to be vigilant in ensuring the balance of power is retained between government and citizens and businesses and consumers."

President Barack Obama proposed national data breach standards on Jan. 12, and a Senate committee held a hearing on the issue Feb. 5.

Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, said he is confident that data-breach legislation can find bipartisan support.

"I'm pretty confident -- if we keep the pressure on and the pressure keeps coming from data breach incidents -- we can improve and enhance cybersecurity," Furman said.

The administration will also be releasing a proposal on consumer privacy in early 2015. This comes after the Commerce Department solicited public comment on the topic and included recommendations laid out in the privacy and big data report.

That May 2014 report urged Congress to amend the nearly 30-year old Electronic Communications Privacy Act to ensure it is consistency with current technology. That recommendation was reiterated in the Feb. 5 interim report, which said the law needed to be overhauled "to ensure the standard of protection for online, digital content is consistent with that afforded in the physical world -- including by removing archaic distinctions between email left unread or over a certain age."