John Podesta: 'We Need to Be Vigilant' About Privacy While Harnessing Benefits of Big Data

At the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy, White House counselor John Podesta discussed ways to capitalize on the opportunities of the big-data revolution while preserving values including privacy and non-discrimination.
John Podesta (left) and moderator Michael Nelson of Microsoft's Technology Policy Group | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

While the big-data revolution is still in its early stages, the United States is in a unique position to address its opportunities and challenges, White House counselor John Podesta said at the 39th annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

"Our commitment to innovation, our technological and scientific know-how, our deep commitment to the values of privacy and fairness and non-discrimination and self-determination will help us harness the benefits of the big-data revolution and encourage the free-flow of information while also protecting privacy," Podesta said during a 2 May luncheon at the Forum.

More than 400 people attended the Forum, the premier gathering for those interested in the intersection of science and technology with public policy, held 1-2 May at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C.

In January, President Obama asked Podesta to lead a 90 day study on the big data revolution's implications for privacy. To examine the subject from several angles, Podesta established the Big Data and Privacy Working Group, which included Penny Pritzker, commerce department secretary, Ernest Moniz, energy department secretary, economic adviser Jeff Zients and science adviser John Holdren.

"As more researchers, as more companies, as more government agencies develop the skills to use big data technologies and analysis, we can expect to see big data put to good use in more and more areas."

John Podesta

Over the next three months, the working group met with academic researchers, technology sector leaders, privacy and civil rights advocates, advertisers, and international regulators. In conjunction with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the working group also requested public comment through a survey posted on WhiteHouse.gov, which received more than 24,000 responses, and held three conferences on the topic of big data and privacy. The report, "Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values," was released 1 May.

"For the purposes of this study, we consider big data to be any data that touches on one or all of the so-called three V's — volume, variety, and velocity," Podesta said. "Big data sets are those that are so large in volume, so diverse in their array of data, and [whose] sources are moving with such incredible velocity that traditional methods of data analysis are just not feasible."

New technology has made it possible to collect, store, and analyze more high-quality data from more sources faster than ever before. "We're not just talking about browser cookies when we're talking about big data," Podesta said. "By combining multiple sources and types of data, big data can lead to tremendous insights. But it can also lead to a so-called mosaic effect where personal information can be derived or inferred from data sets that do not even include personal identifiers within."

Using data collected from different sources has enabled researchers to look for patterns and develop predictive profiles. For example, some companies have used social media interactions and inferred data to give consumers a grade similar to a credit score, which may influence an individual's ability to find housing or employment.

"Predictive analytics should be used with caution," Podesta said. "The detailed personal profiles held about many consumers combined with automated algorithm-driven decision-making could unintentionally or inadvertently lead to discriminatory outcomes." As a result, federal civil rights and consumer protection agencies need to increase their technological expertise so they can identify such practices.

Despite these concerns, big data has enormous potential to inspire innovation and improve consumers' lives. In the field of healthcare, researchers have used electronic medical records to identify characteristics that predict whether hospitalized patients are likely to be readmitted in the near future. Those findings have enabled doctors to proactively schedule follow-up care, decreasing readmission rates. Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration has started using social media to identify adverse drug reactions more quickly than before. 

Researchers have also found that individual patients can be identified using publicly available data along with de-identified medical data sets. Podesta pointed out that in the healthcare context, patients should not be completely de-identified in the event that the research being performed can lead to better health outcomes for those who donated their data. "That's why in our report, we conclude that the government should open up the consultative process to determine how HIPAA, the healthcare privacy law, and other regulations governing health data can be updated both to allow for innovation and more use of it in the healthcare system to provide better treatment but do so at the same time as we protect patient privacy," he said.

In 2012, the administration proposed a consumer privacy bill of rights that would give consumers base-line legal protections ensuring individual control over personal data, transparency in how data is used, and that companies respect the context in which data was collected. "Because of the enormous amount of personal information that companies and other organizations now store about individuals, Americans, I think, have a right to know whether that data has been stolen or otherwise exposed," Podesta said.

The report recommended that the Department of Commerce solicit public comment regarding whether the consumer privacy bill of rights drafted in 2012 offers adequate privacy protections in the big data context, then draft legislation based on those comments. Such legislation "would impose reasonable time periods for notification and minimize interference with ongoing law enforcement investigations," Podesta said.

"As more researchers, as more companies, as more government agencies develop the skills to use big data technologies and analysis, we can expect to see big data put to good use in more and more areas," Podesta said. "But as with any technology, we need to be vigilant about pursuing any questions that are raised about threats to privacy and other values."