Recent revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency's massive data collection programs illustrates the need for a new privacy debate about the implications of big data, some privacy advocates said Tuesday.
The increasing uses of big data in all kinds of organizations, particularly surveillance agencies, should prompt a debate about legitimate data collection and practices, said several speakers at a Washington, D.C., big data and privacy forum hosted by the Future of Privacy Forum and the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society.
Participants in the forum raised concerns about pervasive data collection by private companies, with some privacy advocates calling for new regulations to govern how companies collect and use the data. But collection by the U.S. agencies is more concerning, because the government has power to disrupt people's lives in the way private companies do not, said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union.
With surveillance agencies sharing information indicating evidence of crimes with law enforcement agencies, the NSA's data collection goes beyond preventing terrorism, added Susan Freiwald, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law. With the ability of the government to audit individuals or investigate them, the potential harm to people gives government "a power that's not replicated in the private sector," she said.
Freiwald and other speakers on a panel about government use of big data called for more transparency about what information surveillance agencies are collecting and new independent oversight of the collection practices. Panelists disagreed about whether the NSA should be able to engage in the bulk collection of phone records or Internet communications, with Freiwald calling the collection a violation of the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches.
But Paul Ohm, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School and a former computer crimes prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice, said it may be difficult to convince the U.S. Congress to significantly scale back the NSA's collection capabilities. It may be easier, he said, to implement more restrictions on the NSA's use of the data after the agency collects it.
Freiwald agreed that it may be difficult to convince Congress to cut the amount of surveillance, although she called the sharing of other criminal activities with law enforcement agencies an unfair use of the NSA data. "Can you walk away from data that might prevent a terrorist attack?" she said.
With more companies and agencies collecting and analyzing data, the current legal framework governing fair uses of information is "going to be ineffective," she added.
In recently released orders by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, judges make the NSA present evidence a search of the collected data was necessary before analysts were allowed to do so, noted Bryan Cunningham, a former CIA officer and deputy legal adviser at the U.S. National Security Council. It was encouraging that the orders showed some checks in place for the NSA's use of the data, he said.
But too often, the court didn't question the NSA when the agency told judges it needed to engage in mass collection of data for technical reasons, Cunningham added. He called on Congress to allow the surveillance court to hire technology experts to check the NSA's claims.
The ACLU's Stanley called for independent oversight of the surveillance process, with other panelists calling for more disclosure from the NSA about the reasons for collecting data and the effectiveness of the surveillance programs in preventing terrorism.
While many speakers at the conference raised privacy concerns related to the use of big data, not everyone agreed that there were major privacy problems. During a panel about commercial uses of big data, many speakers seemed to project their critiques of capitalism into the debate, said Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, a free market think tank.
When panelists suggested some consumers may be coerced into making choices based on their shopping preferences being shared online, Szoka suggested that most people aren't as easily manipulated as some big data critics might suggest.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is email@example.com.