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The FTC, Big Data, and Intel’s Privacy Rethink

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By Paula J. Bruening, Senior Counsel, Global Privacy Policy for Intel Corporation

On Monday, September 15, the Federal Trade Commission convened a workshop titled “Big Data:  A Tool for Inclusion or Exclusion?”  Edith Ramirez, FTC Chairwoman, cited three objectives for the day – to identify areas where big data practice may violate law; to build awareness of how big data practices can operate to the detriment of low income and underserved populations; and to encourage business to guard against the discriminatory effects of big data and analytics to lower income individuals and communities. Big data, she said, can have big consequences, and the FTC’s responsibility is to encourage its capacity for good while safeguarding against the negative.

The workshop went to great lengths to present a thorough analysis of the issues, and successfully avoided painting big data and the issues it might raise with a broad brush.  Speakers and panelists highlighted the tremendous potential of big data and probed detailed technical and legal points, recognizing that stores of data, if not examined, could be used to discriminatory effect violating the spirit if not the letter of the law.

Commissioner Julie Brill, who has a long history in the area of privacy and a keen interest in big data, opened the second half of the workshop. She expressed her belief that big data analytics can bring significant benefits to consumers and to society, but that we must endow the big data ecosystem with appropriate privacy and data security protections to achieve those benefits. She suggested that fair information practice principles of transparency and accountability are essential to consumer trust, and emphasized that there is still a place for data minimization and collection limitation.  While she called for study of the real world impact of credit scoring models, she urged industry not to wait for government to begin a review.  And while she expressed her support for legislation that would require greater transparency and accountability of data brokers, she urged the data broker industry to take strong, proactive steps to address the potential impact of their profiling products.  Finally, she commented on the use of big data and analytics across industry, echoing the Harvard Business Review’s urging that companies think deeply about where “value-added personalization and segmentation end[s] and harmful discrimination begins.”

As Intel enters a new phase of its Rethink Privacy initiative, the discussion at the FTC workshop is a reminder that fair information practices remain a key tool in addressing concerns about adverse effects of data use.  Again and again, the workshop discussion turned to the need for transparency, the role of individual consent and the steps that must be taken when consent is not possible, the importance of data integrity and quality, and the heightened need for accountability.  Participants highlighted the need for secure data collection, storage and processing, the possibilities and limits of consumer access, and considerations about purpose specification and collection limitation in an environment where data uses - and the benefits they can afford us - cannot be anticipated.

The benefits of big data, the Internet of Things, and the services made available by the cloud motivate us to get privacy right.  We are redoubling our efforts now to promote this evolution in privacy and data protection – to adapt long-standing principles of fair information practices to continue to do what they do best:  protect the privacy values we embrace in an era of transformational change.