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Big Data, meet Big Brother

Amid public anxiety over NSA, Obama panel goes after still more data

Christopher serra for the Boston Globe

In the dystopian future of George Orwell’s “1984,” the government uses an endless state of war to justify food rationing by the Ministry of Plenty, rewriting history by the Ministry of Truth, and brutal interrogation by the Ministry of Love. Recently, President Obama’s Privacy Working Group — a response to the public outcry over the mass collection of telephone data — concluded that the government needed to collect and review more private data. It’s tempting to think, “you couldn’t make this up.” But, of course, Orwell imagined it in detail.

The working group’s report contains several mundane policy recommendations to update laws dealing with data, e-mail, and digital records. But the boldest stroke, and the one pushed hardest by chairman John Podesta, posits that private data collection could lead “intentionally or inadvertently — to discriminatory outcomes.” Without citing any specific case or allegation, the group calls upon federal agencies to “develop a plan for investigating” collectors and purveyors of digital information.

Big Data, meet Big Brother. Setting aside the formal jargon of a government report, it represents a shot across the bow of every Internet firm from Amazon to Zappos, not to mention banks, credit card, and phone companies. Remember that call Mark Zuckerberg made to President Obama to complain about National Security Agency surveillance? This is the reply: Play ball, or face the consequences.


For the working group’s leader, an aggressive approach is par for the course. Podesta earned his partisan reputation while advising President Clinton, including three years as chief of staff. He was brought in to the Obama White House as an all-purpose fixer, to help the administration play hardball during the coming election season. Clearly, someone sees political gains in turning data management into a civil-rights issue.

At the least, the report is an elaborate deflection from the wide-scale NSA data collection exposed by Edward Snowden’s document trove. In laying out the group’s mission on the White House blog three months ago, Podesta wrote about the need to review “the relationship between government and citizens,” but the final report’s 17-page section on the public sector avoids mentioning the NSA entirely.

Taken together, the recommendations foreshadow broad new regulations regarding consumer privacy, online communications, and data collection. Using very general terms, the report raises the spectre of third-party “data brokers” who might segment consumer preferences in ways that result in what’s being called “digital redlining” — in which, for instance, an ethnic group misses promotional product discounts. Despite a paucity of real-world examples, the report warns this could happen in housing or health care as well, thus justifying government analysis of private data algorithms for offending patterns, whether intentional or not.


Now, no one should condone discriminatory practices in any form, but such a broad indictment of “algorithm-based decision-making” hardly seems justified. Absent specific examples of wrongdoing, the initiative looks like a fishing expedition: Cooperate with our legislative agenda, or we will investigate how you manage your data. The working group’s concern may be sincere, but, without probable cause or a court subpoena, what right does the government have to review private companies’ data and methods?

That corporations have access to volumes of personal information is no justification for government micromanagement of data collection. We may not love our wireless carriers, or Facebook, or even our bank, but we don’t fear them. We engage them in a private contract for specific services, as part of which we might agree to provide them with information. Misuse that data or otherwise mistreat us, and we can walk away.

The government, on the other hand, is a different story. It holds the power to tax, to coerce, to fine, and to jail. Ask any small business owner whether they fear the power of regulatory agencies. Ask any taxpayer how they feel upon receiving an unexpected letter from the IRS.


The true priority should be for government to disclose which data it collects, how long it is stored, and how it is used. Instead, Podesta’s report turns the harsh spotlight of scrutiny on others. The Obama administration has co-opted revelations about its own unprecedented data collection to argue for even more data collection. Like Orwell’s Big Brother, Obama’s team insinuates that government must control the data to protect us from the data.

John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.