Big Data, Little Privacy

Online marketers extend a variety of privacy protection assurances to viewers of their content, typically bundled in “notice and consent” legalese. The marketer may promise to destroy personal data after a set period of time (right, Snapchat?), to anonymize personal identifiers, to limit if not refuse to share data with third parties, to be transparent about what types of data are collected, and so on. The format encourages customers to agree quickly to the terms without reading for comprehension so they can get to the next screen and start loading up their shopping cart icons with consumer goodies. 

On May 1, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report titled “Big Data and Privacy: A Technological Perspective.”* It’s an excellent read by any standard of writing and research, let alone that of government bodies. The report provides a thorough introduction to the nitty-gritty of what “big data” innovations and privacy laws entail, separately and together. It surveys historical landmarks, current issues, and plausible developments with admirable clarity. 

The main takeaway of the PCAST report for political marketers is that the standard package of notice and consent privacy assurances are practically worthless today and growing more obsolete by the nanosecond. Big data movements through the virtual water cycle (from cloud to smartphones and back again), combined with analytic techniques that can fill dossiers on individuals by inference, make it harder for marketers to keep their privacy promises. A marketer may not know where data on hand came from or where else it has been downloaded. The algorithms used to identify individuals and predict their behavior may not have been invented when the data was collected.

Notice and consent will continue to work for transactions with a lot of the people a lot of the time. But eventually, as Abraham Lincoln is mistakenly credited with putting into epigrammatic form, some people will catch on that their privacy is being compromised more than they like. This discovery will be especially troublesome for political marketers. Campaigns put nothing useable in the eager clicker’s shopping cart — okay, maybe a commemorative coffee mug or T-shirt, or dinner with the candidate. Instead, campaigns offer policy positions and statements about the community values they share with people. One of those values is personal privacy. That leaves political campaigners vulnerable to seeming hypocritical to supporters; how can a candidate rail against misuse of metadata by the National Security Agency while relying on metadata to target recipients of their pro-privacy rhetoric? 

PCAST proposes that we as a nation focus on data use more than collection and analysis. The latter two flow beyond our ken, but each of us can still exercise control over our own actions. One keepable promise might be: donate now, register now, vote now, and we won’t contact you again for a specified period of time. Another: candidates who put a high value on privacy protection can provide links to third-party data management firms who will read the fine print and help individuals manage. These are small but helpful steps. And they address the underlying concern that future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis termed the “right to be let alone.” 

* Confusingly, on the same day the Executive Office of the President also released a report on big data. This other report , which has received more news coverage, discusses a range of policy issues raised by big data, including what might be termed “digital redlining,” that is, the use of big data to discriminate in hiring, housing, loan applications, and other practices. I do not deal with that report in this column.

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