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Monday, February 24, 2014

New York Times Calls for Constraints on Big Data Use and Collection

From the New York Times Editorial Board:

Last month, Mr. Obama tapped his special adviser, John Podesta, to take another look at privacy and big data (the millions of records that businesses are collecting and using to increase sales and improve operations) and produce a fresh report in 90 days. 
With the Internet evolving fast, few consumers can adequately guard against losing control of their personal data. A recent report by the majority staff of the Senate Commerce Committee, for example, found that companies known as data brokers have assembled extensive dossiers on millions of individuals and families. Those files include information like web browsing histories, what consumers bought in physical and online stores, and what medical conditions people have. 
. . . 
The president and the public need from Mr. Podesta and his team not only a thorough description of how businesses are collecting private data but also specific legislative proposals to give consumers more control of that information.
While the editorial's focus is on private collection of data, reforms in the private sector have a corresponding impact on the constitutionality of government data collection. The government argues that widespread data collection from private entities does not violate the Fourth Amendment because individual users voluntarily submit their information to these entities. This is the Third Party Doctrine, and it holds some weight in debates over the constitutionality of government surveillance (See ACLU v. Clapper, holding that the third party doctrine permits mass collection of telephonic metadata; but see Klayman v. Obama, holding the opposite). For more background and discussion on these cases and the third party doctrine, see my posts here and here.

If the courts end up holding that the third party doctrine permits government collection of people's online profiles, the impact on user privacy may be mitigated by laws that lessen the scope of information that companies are permitted to collect. This report is something that people should look out for, given its potentially broad implications for the worlds of both private and governmental data collection.

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