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Summary:

The White House announced on Thursday that it will form a working group to study big data and report on its implications to privacy, policy and society. That might be easier said than done.

The White House announced via blog post on Thursday that it’s forming working group focused on understanding the promises and pitfalls of big data (with a heavy emphasis on privacy, apparently) and how they might affect government policy. Good luck.

However anyone wants to define it, big data is an incredibly complex topic. In part, that’s because it’s not so much a technology as it is the result of improvements and advances in collecting, storing and processing data across the technological landscape. Add to that the fact that terms like data, privacy and even big can mean very different things depending on the context in which they’re used — and that the big data cat is already about five years out of the bag — and you have a messy situation.

Here are five things the working group might consider as it sets out on its mission to wrap the White House’s head around big data.

1. Security isn’t privacy. No matter how tempted anybody is to lump data breaches at companies from Adobe to Target to big data, don’t. Whether they store too much of our data, or for too long, is a fair question, but they’re going to store some stuff. How to keep data out of the wrong hands is a technological question. How companies should be able to use data is a policy question.

2. Privacy comes with tradeoffs. There’s no need to rehash the national security versus privacy debate that has dominated the post-Snowden discussion on government data collection (or the CISPA discussion in 2012) but it’s worth remembering there are tradeoffs in the consumer world, too. It’s easy and sometimes right to fault companies for using our data in ways we don’t like but, especially online, there’s a necessary sacrifice between privacy and free services.

3. Big means nothing. In many cases, getting caught up about the volume of data collected or even the scope is a red herring. In fact, having too much data can be a problem if it overwhelms the systems or analysts working with it. What can be done at scale can also be done at a personal level, which is arguably more problematic. From GPS tracking of criminal suspects to facial recognition apps, from social media to fitness devices, there are just more ways than ever to collect and analyze however much data you need for the job.

Need proof? Check out former CIA CTO Gus Hunt talking at last year’s Structure Data conference about that agency’s challenge to keep up with the quantity of data now available.

4. Personal doesn’t mean what it used to. The scale of the internet, a reliance on services ranging from credit cards to Gmail, and the ease of collecting digital data has arguably changed the definitions of words like personal and public — especially in a legal context — which makes it really hard to figure out how laws apply. Just because it’s easier than ever to gather data about people, that doesn’t mean we should.

5. Data is the future of innovation. And the big elephant in the room is that every single regulation that affects data usage and collection could have significant effects on the future of the world. It sounds hyperbolic, but consider the advances that companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook have had in areas like data processing, and how they’re already making their way into all sorts of fields. Our Structure Data conference in March will be a microcosm of this, featuring experts using data to transform everything from automobile design to economic forecasts, from education to socialization.

And we’re swimming in more data everyday as new sources emerge and new technologies come online to help turn old documents, like photos and video, into rich data sources. We’re on the cusp of major advances in fields like cognitive computing and artificial intelligence that could have bigger impacts than many people realize or want ot admit.

The White House (as well as Congress and the courts) do need to understand what big data is and what it means, but they also need to understand that big isn’t just a thing that can be encapsulated and dealt with. It’s everything.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user Tom Lohdon.

  1. I teach classes on Hadoop. It is really being used mostly by the Fortune 50 to advertise, sell, characterize customers, differentiate products, detect fraud, and do other “business-centric” things — often using Machine Learning algorithms.

    What I don’t see is big data being used to benefit the people of our society. Where is the data being collected to analyze and improve quality of life? Or improve work environments? Or improve our government representation? Or analyze ways to reorganize our economy for the benefit of the citizens of our country (and, ideally, the world)? Or evaluate alternatives to our broken political system?

    So security, privacy, and personal data matter — but the matter largely because the governments and businesses are not responsive to the citizens of this country. The real big data problem isn’t really a big data problem.

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    1. Wha- really? You listed ways in which big data helps people and then complained that it doesn’t help people.

      Your subsequent complaints suggest that you are a left-wing person, which might explain your ridiculous belief that helping business doesn’t help people.

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      1. Every technology has a range of potential applications. It is not contradictory to point out application areas where Big Data is and isn’t being applied. It would also be absurd to claim that every business application is positive for our society — or that any given business application is intrinsically positive (and without opportunity cost).

        As for “left-wing” — you ignore that I teach the Fortune 50, NSA, CIA, Military, and even people who don’t officially exist. I’m hardly someone who can be dismissed as “left-wing.” And I’ve found that even the most conservative people want good things for our society – and they generally recognize that restricting business may be the legitimate cost of those good things.

        Perhaps if you disagree with someone, it might be better to use sound arguments, rather than disparaging labels.

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  2. Fascism has arrived. Your privacy and ability to freely express yourself are gone for good. Thanks Bammy.

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  3. Jill Abramson: ‘Most secretive White House I have ever dealt with’…

    Jill Abramson, first female executive editor of The New York Times

    Let me move on to another topic in the Obama administration. How would you grade this administration, compared to others, when it comes to its relationship with the media?

    Well, I would slightly like to interpret the question as “How secretive is this White House?” which I think is the most important question. I would say it is the most secretive White House that I have ever been involved in covering, and that includes — I spent 22 years of my career in Washington and covered presidents from President Reagan on up through now, and I was Washington bureau chief of the Times during George W. Bush’s first term.

    I dealt directly with the Bush White House when they had concerns that stories we were about to run put the national security under threat. But, you know, they were not pursuing criminal leak investigations. The Obama administration has had seven criminal leak investigations. That is more than twice the number of any previous administration in our history. It’s on a scale never seen before. This is the most secretive White House that, at least as a journalist, I have ever dealt with.

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    1. Barbara Holtzman Friday, January 24, 2014

      Apparently, neither of you remember the J Edgar Hoover FBI. How droll.

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  4. A big concern is where Washington D.C. gets their information. A great example is the National Association of Realtors. They are the #2 largest lobbying group in Washington spending more than $40 million per year on schmoozing. Getting information from them is like getting smoking advice from the tobacco lobby. Yet this group is Washington’s information source when it comes to housing policies.
    This group is responsible for every law that got us in this mess.
    They spend billions of dollars to save the sacred real estate commission-they are 100% funded by real estate agents. Core Logic admonished them for their overstatement of home sales for the past ten years over 20%.
    There needs to be accountability when an organization does not tell the truth. We have all gotten so numb to lying.

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