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In Interim Report, White House Emphasizes Civil Rights Implications of Big Data

February 6, 2015 - Posted by Patrick McNeil

As a follow-up to its 90-day review and subsequent report last year on big data policies, the White House on February 5 released an interim report to describe its progress thus far and its plans moving forward.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement praising the report’s release, “One year into this important effort, a diverse assortment of stakeholders has recognized the significance of these technologies for civil rights, and begun to map specific civil rights risks and opportunities across this new technological landscape.”

Last year, with the clock ticking on the White House’s 90-day examination, a coalition of civil rights and media justice groups released ‘Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data,’ calling on the U.S. government and businesses to respect and promote equal opportunity and equal justice in their development and use of new technologies.

The report acknowledged the role that the civil rights community, and specifically, the principles, played in informing the review. John Podesta, counselor to the president, noted in a White House blog post yesterday that one “novel finding” of the initial report released last May was “the potential for big data technologies to circumvent longstanding civil rights protections and enable new forms of discrimination in housing, employment, and access to credit, among other areas.”

Building off of the civil rights principles and the initial White House report, The Leadership Conference, Data & Society Research Institute, and New America’s Open Technology Institute in October hosted a conference in Washington, D.C., which brought together the civil rights community, government officials, industry, philanthropy, and researchers to better understand why big data is a civil rights issue (read materials and learn more about the conference here). Yesterday’s progress report specifically references the October conference and notes that the civil rights community “hopes to make it an annual event, with continuing strong participation from the federal government.”

In the meantime, the administration continues to consider the civil rights implications of big data a priority and is making significant progress on six policy recommendations identified last year, which included advancing the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights; passing national data breach legislation; extending privacy protections to non-U.S. persons; ensuring data collected on students at school is only used for educational purposes; protecting communities from potential discrimination; and amending the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

For example, after soliciting public comments on the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, the administration early this year plans to release draft legislation. And the administration is also continuing to explore how big data can be used in potentially discriminating ways. “Among other investments, the Obama Administration’s budget for Fiscal Year 16 includes $17 million for data science pilots at the National Science Foundation that seek to study issues around data interoperability; data policy and governance; and data security, privacy, integrity, and trustworthiness,” the progress report notes. “These pilots will directly inform other federal big data research projects and will assist in developing the technological and policy expertise needed to tackle difficult problems like the potential for big data to lead to discriminatory outcomes.”

The White House is also engaging with leading researchers and advocates to further explore the implications of big data on employment and access to credit.

To learn more about how last year’s big data review has influenced administration policy, read the full progress report here.

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