White House official addresses challenges facing the need for big data


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Following a year that opened with revelations of federal cell phone surveillance and closed with a data breach for 40 million Target shoppers, the prevailing theme surrounding Data Privacy Day encouraged citizens, corporations and government agencies to work together to keep personal information personal.

"In the more than 18 years I've been working on privacy and technology, I do not recall a time when our government faced more scrutiny about its policies and practices in the use of data," Nicole Wong, the White House chief privacy officer, told more than 100 students and attendees Wednesday at Carnegie Mellon University.

"We are at a difficult but formative moment as a nation and as global citizens as we work to apply our privacy values in the light of the array of other challenges."

Ms. Wong said the challenges of addressing individual privacy while using big data to track criminal activity and to promote innovation requires a "multi-stakeholder approach" that "embeds the values of openness and transparency into business."

She highlighted a White House authorized review of the nation's surveillance capabilities and said a second review examining public and corporate uses of big data will be complete within the next 90 days.

She also noted President Barack Obama's recent announcement to suspend collection of bulk telephone data and to establish a new framework that puts the data storage process into the hands of a third-party vendor. Adding that the president has reservations that a third-party vendor is the best solution to protecting metadata, she said the director of national intelligence, the attorney general and Congress will all be involved in deciding how the program is reshaped.

During a Tuesday keynote address for the National Cyber Security Alliance's Data Privacy Day event in Washington, D.C., the director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection, Jessica Rich, said she aims to make data privacy an everyday event for U.S. citizens.

Modeled after Data Protection Day in Europe, Data Privacy Day has been observed in the United States since 2006.

While Ms. Wong applauded Carnegie Mellon for creating a master's of information technology program focused on privacy engineering as a great start, she also warned the audience not to expect a "silver technology bullet" to solve every privacy issue.

"One of the hardest things about privacy or data protection is that the data in question are collected on a huge number of platforms, online and offline, desktop and mobile in an array of formats, forms and interfaces. Right now at least, no innovator wants to be locked into a universal privacy seat belt," she said.

Acknowledging the need to collaborate with industry, civil liberties experts, technologists and international partners to examine the best uses of big data and privacy technologies, she said the best way to get to a universal answer is to agree on the question at hand.

"We need to figure out what we're trying to protect, what benefits big data analytics can bring and what values it can vindicate. We need to agree on how to measure our successes and our risks. We need a framework for distilling the benefits of large data sets responsibly," she said.


Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.

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