White House calls for stronger privacy laws to protect consumers' data

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 1, 2014 

— The White House released a report Thursday that warned data collection can reveal consumers’ intimate personal details and lead to discrimination.

The 79-page report said online and offline communications should receive the same legal protections. It recommended strengthening privacy laws, including passing the Obama administration’s proposed Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

Obama proposed the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights in 2012 as a regulatory framework that would give consumers more control over the data that companies collect about their everyday activities in the digital age. Efforts to enact comprehensive privacy legislation have since stalled in Congress.

Thursday’s report, compiled by a working group led by Obama’s counselor, John Podesta, also recommended extending privacy protections to non-U.S. citizens, protecting students from the inappropriate use of data collected for educational purposes, and recruiting technical experts to help the federal government monitor data analysis practices for discrimination against minority groups and other protected classes.

Podesta said in a phone call with reporters Thursday that data collection and analytics are driving innovations in medicine, public safety and the economy.

But he also noted that “big data raises serious questions” about privacy and that the collection of so many personal details about consumers has the potential to “circumvent longstanding civil rights protections” designed to prevent discrimination in housing, credit and employment.

Asked whether it was hypocritical of the government to call for greater privacy when the National Security Agency relies on big data for surveillance, Podesta said no.

“I think it’s in no way hypocritical for us to come forward, as we’re continuing to try to provide basic rights and the strong ability to control and audit the way our privacy protections are being executed,” he said.

The report focused on the use of data the commercial world, not in intelligence, he added.

Privacy advocates on Thursday welcomed the report’s recognition that online and offline communications should be treated the same, and the acknowledgment of the discriminatory role so-called “Big Data” can play.

They urged the administration and Congress to enact reforms quickly, without any loopholes.

“Even though it’s been more than two years since the White House announced support for a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, the report further delays the release of a legislative proposal,” said Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, in an email.

Chester criticized the White House’s approach to consumer privacy, which he said relies on lobbyist-dominated “stakeholder” meetings at the Commerce Department to develop “industry codes of conduct” that don’t really protect consumers.

He also said the report should have called for a national debate on whether the pervasive data collection, tracking and targeting system put in place by Google, Facebook and other data-driven businesses should be tolerated in the first place.

“The report may give a green light to expanded data collection, where the principle is collect first and worry about privacy and consumer protection later,” Chester said.

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