We will summarize this lengthy new report from the White House as such: Yes, yes, the NSA. But you need to worry about the private sector collecting your data, too.
One of the earliest and most frequent arguments used by President Obama in the debate over government surveillance has been a variant of that: you willingly hand over much more information to Facebook and to advertisers than the government collects on American citizens. And that's true, but, in the words of Edward Snowden, Facebook lacks the ability to put "warheads on foreheads," meaning that the ramifications of Facebook's data collection are somewhat different.
The new report, titled "Big Data: Seizing opportunities, preserving values," tries to flesh out what those private-sector ramifications might be. Pointedly, as The New York Times notes in its coverage. The report is the White House "hoping to move the national debate over privacy beyond the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities to the practices of companies like Google and Facebook," as the paper puts it.
To that end, the report offers six policy proposals, including a consumer bill-of-rights, a law mandating that companies report data breaches, and limits on data collected from students. It also suggests new protections against one of the most subtle threats inherent in massive storehouses of data: the ability to subtly discriminate.
"The detailed personal profiles held about many consumers, combined with automated, algorithm-driven decision-making, could lead—intentionally or inadvertently—to discriminatory outcomes, or what some are already calling 'digital redlining,'" the report reads. The term "redlining" is a reference to the once-common practice of delineating areas of cities where businesses would apply different rules and costs — usually because of the racial composition of those neighborhoods. "The federal government's lead civil rights and consumer protection agencies," the proposal continues, "should expand their technical expertise to be able to identify practices and outcomes facilitated by big data analytics that have a discriminatory impact on protected classes, and develop a plan for investigating and resolving violations of law."
I look at the social success of this story w/this hed—http://t.co/WHcFAb8IZo—and I think Big Data has replaced Big Brother as shorthand.— Alexis C. Madrigal (@alexismadrigal) May 2, 2014
To be very clear: The White House is not wrong. The scale of data collection is unprecedented, and businesses are already exploring ways in which to maximize profits from data analysis. Earlier this week, ThinkProgress ran a story about a woman who masked her online activity to hide her pregnancy from data collection systems. The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal, who last year noticed that his family's still-unannounced pregnancy had already attracted attention from marketers, compared the story's use of "Big Data" in the headline to the more common use of "Big Brother." The implications of data collection, in other words, are already loosely understood — and not always appreciated.
If you are among those concerned, a bit of good news. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a tool called Privacy Badger which you can use to block commercial tracking tools. It also, we will point out, has tools to hide from the NSA.