Obama leads in taking broad view of how data are used

Whichever report John E. Sununu thinks he is responding to in his recent column “Big Data, meet Big Brother” (Op-ed, May 12), it bears no resemblance to the review I conducted for the president and the White House that was released on May 1.

The former senator alleges that the report’s purpose is to distract from National Security Agency data practices. Nothing could be further from the truth. The president announced our 90-day review in conjunction with a sweeping set of proposals to reform NSA data collection, based on the 46 recommendations made by his Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies.

Rather than duplicating that effort — and recognizing that big data technologies have implications far beyond the intelligence community — the president charged us with taking a broader view. That’s why our report examines the challenges raised by other public-sector uses of big data, including in law enforcement.


It’s true some industry lobbyists have grumbled about our call for more transparency by data brokers. But far from spelling doomsday for the tech sector, the report emphasizes the potential that big data holds for every part of the economy, and highlights early examples of important big data innovation in health care, education, and energy savings.

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Sununu seems particularly put out by our report’s finding that big data could lead, inadvertently or deliberately, to discriminatory outcomes in employment, education, housing, or other areas. Based on the civil rights scores he accumulated during his time in Congress, these are clearly not issues the former senator concerned himself with.

But groups like the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, one of the organizations that calculate those congressional scores, have embraced this conclusion of our report because data infuse every sector of our economy. The idea that it could not be used to discriminate is naive; to suggest that the government should not build expertise in how to recognize such discrimination is irresponsible.

Sununu and I agree on one point: The government should do more to open up its data to the public and industry. The Obama administration has led the world in such efforts, and the report makes concrete recommendations to build on the president’s strong record on open data.

John Podesta

Counselor to the president