PCAST: Focus on How Big Data is Used, Not Its Collection

The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology thinks that policies should focus more on the uses of big data, and not on its collection.

big data

big data

New technologies that gather, analyze and preserve vast quantities of data have raised concerns about how individual privacy might be protected or compromised.

Earlier this month, the United States President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a new report called “Big Data: A Technological Perspective.”

In today’s world, re-identification technologies often outpace de-identification capabilities that preserve privacy. It is increasingly difficult to identify sensitive information at the time of its collection due, in part, to the collection of too much data.

The report speaks to how big data has come to the forefront as technology has advanced, explores the nature of privacy, identifies data sources — including new analytics enabled by data mining and data fusion — and the utility of these data.

PCAST also notes that 20th-century privacy laws “have not always kept pace with the technological realities of today’s digital communications.”

The report outlines a number of recommendations, including:

  • Policies should focus more on the uses of big data and less on its collection and analysis.
  • Regulation should not prescribe particular technological solutions, but should be stated in terms of intended outcomes.
  • Agencies should strengthen U.S. research in privacy-related technologies and in the relevant areas of social science.
  • Relevant agencies and institutions should encourage privacy-protection education and training.
  • The U.S. should take the lead by using its convening power (e.g. promoting the creation and adoption of standards) and also by its own procurement practices (e.g. its use of privacy-preserving cloud services).

While PCAST believes strongly that “the positive benefits of big data technology are (or can be) greater than any new harms,” it also concludes that “technology alone cannot protect privacy, and policy intended to protect privacy needs to reflect what is (and is not) technologically feasible.”

Read the full report here.