The White House Tackles Big Data and Privacy

The barrage of recent high-profile data breaches has businesses and consumers increasingly on edge. What’s more, as a growing array of technologies and systems intersect, the challenges—and the stakes—continue to grow.

A new report from the Executive Office of the President, “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values,” acknowledges that there is growing concern about digital business and big data. Maintaining a balance between the benefits for businesses and the risks for consumers is paramount.

Among other things, the report outlines how the volume, variety and velocity of data are changing the stakes—particularly as new data sources from sensors, cameras, storage and data processing systems accumulates. Increasingly, big data tools and technologies extract value from enormous datasets that couldn’t previously be tapped.

What’s more, the Internet of things and machine-to-machine interactions are rapidly adding to the data mix. This has implications across a wide swath of industries and for a growing array of consumer touchpoints.

“Computational capabilities now make ‘finding a needle in a haystack’ not only possible, but practical,” the report notes. It goes on to identify a number of pressing issues and challenges, including data personalization; de-identification and re-identification of data; and the persistence of data, including how it is stored and retained.

The report emphasizes that boundaries and controls are critical to ensuring fairness and avoiding discrimination. If industry falls short of adequate data privacy and consumer trust wanes, the economy could be placed at risk.

The recommendations presented by the White House include a consumer “bill of rights,” which would provide basic protections for consumers, particularly as emerging advertising models used by companies including Google, Facebook and online brokers take shape. The report authors suggest that Congress enact national data breach legislation mandating a single standard and specifying acceptable timeframes for notification. They also recommend modernizing the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, extending protections to non-U.S. citizens, and expanding overall technical expertise to stop discrimination based on data use.

Lanny Cohen, global chief technology officer for Capgemini, says that the report, though focused on only one key aspect of data privacy—big data—offers a reasonably sound framework for approaching the problem.

“The report balances the debate between the opportunities that big data creates—both in the public and private sectors—and the need to protect privacy,” Cohen adds. “It raises awareness about a number of key issues and establishes some swim lanes that could lead to important legislative and regulatory direction.”

Cohen believes that, in the end, businesses must recognize the need for better data controls and policies to ensure privacy. “If we want to continue to encourage innovation and take advantage of what digital technologies offer, we must acknowledge trade-offs and understand the need for balance,” he points out.

“Data is rapidly emerging as a key resource, and it’s conceivable that it will become an actual currency in the not-too-distant future. This could impact enterprise valuations and ripple through many areas. It’s critical for C-suite executives to get their head around the topic.”