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Data on Data on Data: FTC Furthers Debate with Big Data Workshop

  • date icon September 18, 2014
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Earlier this week, the FTC hosted a full day workshop that brought together the “who’s who” of DC privacy wonks to talk the current legal context and the future of big data.  Continuing the Administration’s investigation into the benefits and costs of big data, according to FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez’s opening remarks, the FTC workshop aimed to explore whether and how big data helps American consumers.

What you need to know from the day’s discussion:

What is “big data?”

There is no consensus definition of “big data.” But regardless of how you define it, “big data” depends on three factors – (1) volume; (2) veracity; and (3) variety.  

The promise of “big data.”

Several panelists acknowledged the important societal and community benefits of big data, particularly as a solution to solving problems related to health and educational disparities.  Using information to solve problems holds tremendous promise.  Participants also raised the potential for data driven discrimination.  

The Remedy

Panelists advocated that specific harms must first be identified, and gaps in existing laws be identified, before moving forward with legislation to tackle consumer harms (real or perceived).  The current self-regulatory approach to privacy permits the seamless operation of the Internet and its services and products.

#AlternativeScores is trending.

“Big data” has the potential to provide credit to populations who are not well served by traditional credit reports.  One participant cited to a LexisNexis study finding that 41% of African Americans and Hispanics could not be scored traditionally.  Credit card use among Millennials is on the decline, which means that alternate scoring will be needed to evaluate creditworthy borrowers.

Privacy and fairness are not interchangeable

Historically, privacy and discrimination have been addressed in separate legal frameworks, and we believe the two concepts should not be conflated.  Ours and other perspectives were heard on the panel.  While one panelist opined that privacy and fairness are aligned in important and fundamental ways, another disagreed and countered that these two terms are completely unrelated.

We [want to] see right through you, data brokers

Commissioner Brill discussed the FTC’s latest report on data brokers entitled “Data Brokers: A Call for Transparency and Accountability.” Brill expressed her support for legislation that would create greater transparency and accountability around data brokers, including consumer profiles, how they are used, and how they might harm underserved populations.  

Education is key

Several participants recommended that, moving forward, resources should be devoted toward determining the best way to educate consumers on the data that’s being used about them.

So what happens next? There is no clear path forward.  The FTC plans to identify areas where big data violates existing laws (FTC Act, FCRA, etc.) and may follow up with additional events or a report on the workshop.

The big data policy debate looks set to continue.