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White House releases report on tech privacy

The Obama administration released a report on so-called big data and the implications on the security of consumer information. The report is seen as an attempt to shift the privacy debate away from the NSA and government spying and toward companies like Google (GOOG) and Facebook (FB), according to the New York Times.

The report was three months in the works and steered by John Podesta, a special advisor to President Barack Obama and former chief of staff to Bill Clinton. Big data is the correlation and analysis of massive amounts of information to create insights and uncover relationships that would otherwise be invisible. Some major uses of big data are in marketing, credit determination, health care delivery, and law enforcement.

The section on public sector management of data stressed legal and operational safeguards that the report claimed protected privacy. The section on private sector management of data emphasized the shortcomings of private industry when it comes to ensuring personal privacy and the ways in which data use could hurt consumers.

The report made several policy recommendations:

  • Passage of a consumer bill of privacy rights.
  • Passage of national data breach legislation.
  • Extension of privacy protections to non-U.S. persons.
  • Mandate that data collected on students is used only for educational purposes.
  • Amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to ensure that digital privacy protection is consistent with that legally protected in the physical world.
In an interview with the New York Times, Podesta said that Obama was surprised that "the same technologies are not only used by the intelligence community, but far more broadly in the public and private spheres because there is so much collection."

One of the charges by whistleblower Edward Snowden was that the NSA had actually tapped into some data pulled from technology companies. Companies such as Google, Microsoft (MSFT), Apple (AAPL), and Facebook have reported on the thousands of government requests they receive for user data, which would likely include the types to which Podesta referred.

There are some big differences between the technology companies and NSA. Although few read the disclosures, consumers can go to the terms of use of Google or Facebook and see that data isn't private. Some quick research, or simple observations of how ads track your recent online activities, can show the extent.

With the NSA, however, data collection has been a secret activity. There are no disclosures and the only reason any information is available is because of whistle-blowing activities of Snowden and others. In addition, the information the NSA gathers could be used as parts of criminal investigations or other government activities.

The report also claimed that "[s]ince President Obama took office, the federal government has taken unprecedented steps to make more of its own data available to citizens, companies, and innovators." Ironically, the Obama administration has been criticized for cracking down on whistleblowers more than any previous administration. Some promises Obama made about strengthening whistleblower laws were taken down from the Web two days after Snowden's first revelations were published.

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