Big Data

Science council approves big-data privacy report

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Looking for new ways to build privacy protections into IT systems, the White House will publish its "Big Data and Privacy: A Technological Perspective" in the coming days after the report was approved at an April 30 meeting of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

The report is part of a larger administration look at the potential big data technology holds to threaten personal privacy.

That broader effort is being led by presidential advisor John Podesta; PCAST was charged with examining the technology behind big data.

The authors backed the routine, consistent use of encryption and other security technologies to protect personal data as it moves across networks. More education is needed for researchers and others who work with personal data to protect the privacy of subjects, especially on the federal side.

They also supported boosting research and adding scale to some types of security protections that are now being implemented "by hand," according to co-author Susan Graham, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

"We believe that technology alone can't reduce privacy risks. There has to be policy as well," Graham said. New policy recommendations weren't part of the PCAST brief; those will have to come from the political side of the White House. But Graham did say that the federal government "needs to lead by example," by using good privacy protection practices.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology is in the midst of creating a privacy engineering framework analogous to its work on cybersecurity standards. While not related to the big data review per se, NIST's basic goal is to "develop reusable tools and practices to facilitate the creation and maintenance of systems with strong privacy postures," NIST privacy policy advisor Naomi Lefkovitz said at an agency workshop on privacy earlier this month. 

Part of the problem is that policymakers don't have a framework for talking to engineers about privacy, and there's a lack of clarity about precisely what is meant by privacy in a networked world in which information is shared voluntarily, but also obtained through passive sensors and surveillance systems.

"For too long the risk to individual privacy has been dismissed as too unpredictable or too opaque to be tackled in the development process," said Charles Romine, director of NIST's IT Laboratory.

While there is no schedule for the release of new NIST guidance, the agency is looking to private sector, academia and other stakeholders for input on the development of a methodology that can engineer privacy protections into IT systems.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is a staff writer covering Congress, the FCC and other key agencies. Connect with him on Twitter: @thisismaz.

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