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U.S.' White House calls for big data and cloud privacy overhaul

Kenneth Corbin | May 5, 2014
Leading tech groups welcome call for data breach law and outdated cloud privacy statute, but warn against overreaching consumer privacy legislation.

In outlining the new proposals, John Podesta, the counselor to the president who led a three-month study of privacy and big data, took pains to highlight the myriad ways in which data collected from sensors, smartphones and other networked devices and objects can yield valuable social and economic benefits.

Big data functions like predictive analytics and continuous monitoring can help stem the spread of infectious diseases or provide advance warning about potential mechanical failures in jet engines, for instance.

At the same time, Podesta cautioned that "big data raises serious questions, too, about how we protect our privacy," suggesting that businesses need to provide users with more meaningful ways to understand and control how their information is being collected and used.

"In particular, our review raised the question of whether the 'notice and consent' framework, in which a user grants permission for a service to collect and use information about them, still allows us to meaningfully control our privacy as data about us is increasingly used and reused in ways that could not have been anticipated when it was collected," Podesta told reporters on a conference call.

White House Jumpstarts Congress

With the new privacy report, the White House is aiming to spur Congress into action with a number of targeted legislative proposals, some with longstanding support from the tech industry, such as the passage of a national data-breach notification law to replace the patchwork of state laws currently on the books.

Additionally, the administration is calling for an update of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), a 1986 law that set privacy protections for digital content. That law, enacted before the commercialization of the Internet and the advent of the Web, contains what Podesta described as "artificial differences and archaic distinctions" that afford different legal protections for opened and unopened emails, and communications that are stored locally or in the cloud.

Several leading tech trade groups quickly lauded those proposals, particularly ECPA reform, which has the backing of a broad range of could computing firms.

"As users increasingly store email and other communications remotely, it is critical to reform ECPA to establish a warrant requirement for access to these communications, regardless of where they are stored," Mark MacCarthy, vice president of public affairs at the Software and Information Industry Association, said in a statement.

Some of those groups were more cautious in their response to the proposal to enact legislation enshrining a consumer bill of rights along the lines of the framework the White House rolled out in 2012. The White House has asked the Commerce Department to convene businesses, privacy advocates and other stakeholders to consider how those principles might be updated to provide consumer protections in light of the big data report.


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