Protecting Privacy in a Big Data World

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

John Podesta, counselor to the US president

John Podesta, counselor to the US president

Big data raises big questions. What does it mean for the relationship between citizens and governments, customers and businesses, workers and employers? As governments worldwide ponder how to deal with privacy in a ‘big data age’, John Podesta recommends to the US president Barack Obama that the protections of the 1974 Privacy Act should be extended to non-US citizens as well.

John Podesta serves as Counselor to President Barack Obama and recently finished a large review process of big data and privacy. He is the former White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.

For most of human history, information moved no faster than a horse and rider could ride or a ship could sail. Today, instant global communication is a reality. The Internet has been a boon for international commerce, for sharing knowledge, and for building relationships across borders. From the smartphones in our pockets to the navigation systems in our cars, the world today is more connected than ever before—and we ourselves produce more and more data about our activities, movements, preferences, and relationships.

This proliferation of data from a wide range of sources, combined with the declining cost of collection, storage, and processing and the increasing power of a variety of analytic techniques, is at the heart of so-called “big data” technology. Big data is being used in a range of socially and economically powerful ways: to drive important research in medicine and health care delivery, to model climate change impacts like sea level rise, and to help private companies and government agencies detect fraud.

But as with any new technology, big data raises big questions. What does big data mean for the balance of power between citizens and governments, customers and businesses, and workers and employers? Are our existing privacy frameworks sufficient to protect sensitive personal information in a big data world?

In January, President Obama spoke at the U.S. Justice Department about how to strike a balance between keeping America and our allies safe and upholding our commitments to privacy rights and civil liberties. He announced several important reforms to the United States’ signals intelligence practices, and reaffirmed his longstanding commitment to robust public debate of these issues.  The President also called on his national security team to work with their foreign counterparts to strengthen our most critical relationships, deepen our coordination and cooperation, and rebuild trust.  

At the same time, recognizing that these challenges are not unique to the intelligence community, President Obama asked me to work with senior Administration officials to conduct a 90-day review of big data and privacy, to investigate how big data is changing the way we live, work, and interact with one another and with government and business.  On May 1, we delivered our findings to the President.

We concluded that big data will have a profound impact on nearly every sector of human endeavor, public and private, personal and commercial. We believe that big data will demand an incisive and ongoing conversation about how best to protect privacy in a rapidly changing technological landscape, and we recommended concrete steps to advance the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, a landmark proposal first issued by President Obama in 2012 to enshrine in law privacy protections for the digital age.

Just as the Internet does not stop at national boundaries, the opportunities and challenges posed by big data have international ramifications. During the course of our review, we sought a wide range of perspectives and met with several international partners, including data privacy representatives from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the European Union, as well as Canada and Mexico; academics from around the world; and international NGOs.

Privacy is a worldwide value. That is why in our report we recommend applying the protections of the 1974 Privacy Act, which governs how federal agencies collect, use, and disseminate personally identifiable information, to all non-U.S. persons to the extent practicable, or establishing alternative privacy policies that apply appropriate and meaningful protections to personal information regardless of a person’s nationality.

The United States and our European partners respect the privacy of our own and each other’s citizens.  President Obama and E.U. leaders reiterated their commitment on this score when they met in March. We share the common goal of ensuring that the right data and privacy protections are in place to allow us all to enjoy the full range of benefits modern technologies promise. In order to ensure citizens on both sides of the Atlantic have access to the international trade and commerce that enrich our modern lives, the U.S. and E.U. have come together to apply standards and increase transparency for how we handle data transfers. Our law enforcement agencies better protect our citizens when they work together, so our leaders committed to expedite negotiations of a meaningful and comprehensive data protection agreement for police and judicial cooperation on criminal matters, including terrorism.

The Obama Administration remains committed to an open, interoperable, secure, and reliable Internet—and to harnessing the innovative potential of big data technology. Big data can help utility companies monitor and predict energy demand in the electric grid, boosting efficiency and reducing the risk of power outages. Big data underpins the tools mapping the human genome and powering the Administration’s BRAIN Initiative, which aims to vastly improve our understanding of the human brain. We believe it is essential to maximize the public benefits of big data technologies while at the same time minimizing risks to privacy and other values.

These goals will require ongoing consideration of the impact of new technologies on privacy rights. Through active and continuing cooperation with our international partners, I believe we can succeed in upholding our common privacy values in a rapidly changing world. 

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