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White House panel calls for big data reforms to protect privacy

New legislation is necessary to prevent discrimination and protect civil rights, says review panel commissioned by President Obama.

Greg Sandoval/CNET

Noting that big data technologies are helping to save lives and make the economy run more efficiently, a White House panel recommended on Thursday that new legislation is necessary to prevent discrimination and protect civil rights.

The report, which came after a 90-day review requested by President Obama, recommends that privacy protections afforded to US residents be extended to residents of other countries. The 85-page report, which was presented to Obama on Thursday, also recommends passing data national breach legislation and restricting use of data collected on students to educational purposes.

The panel's report, which was led by senior White House advisor John Podesta, was part of a review of the National Security Agency's controversial data-collection programs. Although the report mentions Edward Snowden's release of classified documents, the act that ultimately led to the review, the panel makes no reference to the agency's surveillance activities.

Big data provides several beneficial applications, including studying viruses, determining when vehicle maintenance is required, and helping the government work more efficiently, Podesta wrote in a blog post. The technologies are transformative, Podesta wrote, but they raise considerable questions about privacy protection.

"A significant finding of this report is that big data analytics have the potential to eclipse longstanding civil rights protections in how personal information is used in housing, credit, employment, health, education, and the marketplace," Podesta warned in the report (PDF).

To protect Internet users' privacy, the report recommended the creation and passage of a new Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, as first proposed by Obama in 2012.

In particular, the panel took issue with the notice-and-consent data collection model, in which a user gives a one-time permission for their data to be collected. The panel wondered whether the model allowed users a meaningful control of the privacy "as data about us is increasingly used and reused in ways that could not have been anticipated when it was collected."

The panel also recommended amending the 1986 Electronic Communications and Privacy Act (ECPA), a statute written in the pre-Internet era that allows police to obtain Americans' e-mail messages that are more than six months old. The review said the amendment should ensure that protection afforded to digital content is consistent with that in the physical world -- "including by removing archaic distinctions between email left unread or over a certain age."

Consumer rights advocates applauded the review's focus, especially its recommended reforms to the ECPA.

"This report rightly recognizes that discrimination and inequality which already exist in society can be amplified by large-scale data analysis," Christopher Calabrese, the legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. "By recognizing that online and offline communications should be treated the same, the report lays the groundwork for keeping everyone's emails, texts, and photos private and secure."