White House Worried About Use of Big Data to Discriminate

Report on privacy due out this week

The White House report on big data and privacy, due out this week, will call out the potential use of big data as a way to discriminate or take advantage of vulnerable consumers, the Associated Press reported.

Senior White House counselor John Podesta identified the issue during his 90-day review of big data and privacy assigned to him by President Obama in the wake of controversy over government surveillance. 

Podesta didn't reveal what other recommendations he will make, but he did tell the AP that the potential for big data to be used to discriminate warranted a closer look.

The White House isn't the first to fret that big data might be used to discriminate against groups of consumers for housing, employment or health decisions. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the commerce committee, held a hearing late last year during which he released a study on data brokers and blasted the industry.

Rockefeller, privacy hawks and civil rights groups are particularly troubled by some of the segmentation schemes that group customers into categories like "rural and barely making it" or "credit crunched: city families" that could be targeted with risky offers or even denied a job.

The Federal Trade Commission is also suspicious of the practice, announcing earlier this month it would hold a workshop on Sept. 15 to examine the impact of big data on low-income and underserved consumers. Recently, the agency settled two cases with data brokers Checkmate and InfoTrack for selling consumer data to prospective employers and landlords in violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

The last time the White House put out a report on privacy was 2012. In that report, the administration recommended that Congress enact baseline privacy legislation. But in the end, the report did little more than rev up the ongoing privacy debate; legislation has gone nowhere in either chamber. Given the timing of this latest report, on the eve of the 2014 midterm elections, this new report may suffer a similar fate.