White House Calls for Transparency from Data Brokers

A White House report on big data calls for greater transparency from data brokers and technology companies about how they process consumers’ data and how that information is treated.

The White House redirected attention away from the data collection efforts of the intelligence community yesterday with the release of a report that urged data brokers to be more transparent about their own data harvesting.

Companies such as Facebook, Google and others make a living collecting the personal information of their users and converting that into targeted advertising and marketing. Data brokers collect and store data that not only call into concern privacy issues, but also make them a prime target for cybercrime.

The report, “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values,” made six recommendations that include the passing of national data breach legislation and amending the Electronic Communications Privacy Act bringing it in line with modern-day technology usage.

“Consumers deserve more transparency about how their data is shared beyond the entities with which they do business directly, including ‘third-party’ data collectors,” the report said. “This means ensuring that consumers are meaningfully aware of the spectrum of information collection and reuse as the number of firms that are involved in mediating their consumer experience or collecting information from them multiplies.”

Authored by John Podesta, counselor to President Obama, and other senior Washington officials including Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, the report also recommends advancing the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, making sure that consumers are clear what data is collected as they move online and how it is used.

“The data services industry should follow the lead of the online advertising and credit industries and build a common website or online portal that lists companies, describes their data practices, and provides methods for consumers to better control how their information is collected and used or to opt-out of certain marketing uses,” the report said.

Podesta told the New York Times that he briefed President Obama, who was surprised at how the same technology used by intelligence agencies is also used in the private sector.

The calls for transparency not only would alleviate privacy concerns, but also dissipate the potential for discrimination, the paper said.

“Fueled by greater access to data and powerful analytics, there are now a host of products that ‘score’ individuals beyond the scope of traditional credit scores, which are regulated by law.110 These products attempt to statistically characterize everything from a consumer’s ability to pay to whether, on the basis of their social media posts, they are a ‘social influencer’ or ‘socially influenced.'”

The fear, the paper said, is that these scores can unfairly sway opportunities for housing or employment. Shedding light on the learning algorithms behind these scores would help defuse any problems.

“Details on what types of data are included in these scores and the algorithms used for assigning attributes to an individual are held closely by companies and largely invisible to consumers,” the paper said. “That means there is often no meaningful avenue for either identifying harms or hold-ing any entity in the decision-making chain accountable.”

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