US National Security Agency

Obama review shows big data could prompt discrimination

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 April, 2014, 10:31pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 April, 2014, 10:31pm

A White House review of how the government and private sector use large sets of data has found that such information could be used to discriminate against Americans on issues such as housing and employment even as it makes their lives easier in many ways.

It allows mapping apps to ping cellphones anonymously and determine, in real time, what roads are the most congested. But it can also be used to target economically vulnerable people.

The issue came up during a 90-day review ordered by President Barack Obama, White House counsellor John Podesta said in an interview. Podesta did not discuss all the findings, but said the potential for discrimination was an issue.

Federal laws have not kept up with the rapid development of technology in a way that would shield people from discrimination.

The review, set for release within the next week, is the Obama administration's first attempt at addressing the challenges, beyond national security and consumer privacy, posed by technological change.

Podesta would not discuss the specific recommendations he will make to Obama. He did mention an unexpected concern that emerged during White House officials' meetings with business leaders and privacy advocates: how big data could be used to target consumers and lead to discriminatory practices.

President Barack Obama requested the review in January, when he called for changes to some of the National Security Agency's surveillance programmes that amass large amounts of data belonging to Americans and foreigners.

The technology that enabled those programmes also enables others used in the government and the private sector. The White House separately has reviewed the NSA programmes and proposed changes to rein in the massive collection of Americans' phone records and emails.

Podesta said: "With the rapidity of the way technology changes, it's going to be hard to imagine what it's going to look like a generation from now. But at least we can look out over the horizon and say, 'Here are the trends. What do we anticipate the likely policy issues that it raises?'"

He said the review's goal was to assess whether current laws and policies about privacy were sufficient.