Data collection opens door to abuses and discrimination – US experts

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Privacy remains one of the most sensitive issues for the majority of average Americans. The White House has recently published two reports regarding privacy and data collection policy, which sparked controversy between privacy advocates and industry representatives.

While the big data business is inclined to place “the burden of privacy protection on the individual,” its opponents point to the fact that consumers have no idea of how and for what purposes information about their online activity is being used by service providers and commercial organizations.

One of the reports was presented by John D. Podesta, a senior adviser to the White House, who deems that the market for online privacy is tilted against the individual. His survey included several policy recommendations, particularly the idea of developing government limitations on how companies use the collected data about people’s online behavior. The other report was devoted to the concept of changing market rules and was produced by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), consisting of academics, government scientists and industry representatives.

The fact that US companies are allowed to collect a plethora of information about users has become a subject of lively debate. A wide variety of data – from web browsing to buying habits – placed at the disposal of corporations “opens the door to abuses like discriminating against the poor, older people or minorities, or deploying marketing tactics that exploit them,” according to the New York Times. At the same time, industry representatives stress that fast-growing data bases are bolstering the US economy and generating jobs and wealth. Thus, they claim, any restrictions imposed on data collection would be impractical and ineffective.

Looking for the appropriate solution PCAST suggests that “the primary burden must fall on the commercial user of big data and not on the consumer.” The goal can be achieved through technical measures and special rules and regulations, states the report. “Rules and regulations provide both deterrence of harmful actions and incentives to deploy privacy-protecting technologies. Privacy protection cannot be achieved by technical measures alone.”

The concept of changing market rules and responsibilities would appear to be a breakthrough if the policy changes get approved. However, experts remain uncertain if the improvements will be implemented soon.

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