White House ‘Big Data’ Review Recognizes Innovation and Self-Regulation

When the White House announced its intent to study the rise of “Big Data,” as a citizen, I guessed there might be a lot to say about government surveillance, public safety and terrorism, in light of Snowden. As a consumer, I suspected there might be a lot of attention to data breaches, in light of the recent Target incident among others. As a working individual whose livelihood depends on data access and use for more relevant marketing, I was nervous

When the White House announced its intent to study the rise of “Big Data” and its impact on business, commerce, government and consumer’s everyday lives, with privacy protection as an underlying theme, I have to admit I was bracing myself.

As a citizen, I guessed there might be a lot to say about government surveillance, public safety and terrorism, in light of Snowden. As a consumer, I suspected there might be a lot of attention to data breaches, in light of the recent Target incident among others.

As a working individual whose livelihood depends on data access and use for more relevant marketing, I was nervous there might not be a practical discussion of how information sharing and privacy protection can (and is) successfully provided through a combination of peer regulation, enterprising technology and sector-specific legal regulation where information protection and security is niche-based and designed to prevent harm from data error or misuse (credit, financial, health, for example).

Then the report, titled “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values” (pdf), was released.

As a citizen, I was left wanting. Government surveillance of law-abiding U.S. citizens is parked for another report, another day. Some reforms have already been announced. Perhaps this is a blessing—there never should have been a link made between government spying and private sector use of data for commercial purposes anyway.

As a consumer, I was glad to see a call for a single national data breach notification standard. A few years back, I received several notices of “my” data being breached in a few months’ span—two of which offered a year’s worth of identity theft and fraud protection (which I continued to purchase on my own). Whether by luck or design, those notices have declined in number—I’ve had none in the past year. As I hear and read about more recent major data breaches, I haven’t been directly affected (to my knowledge), and maybe—just maybe—some organizations and brands in which I’m involved have gotten better about security. (Indirectly, we all pay for fraud—in higher prices for products and services, insurance, bank fees and the like—and perhaps in our collective loss of trust and carefree.)

As a marketer, I have to say I was happily surprised at the clear-headed conveyance of facts and reporting of opinion in this report—and, importantly, the steer-clearance of political grandstanding. I will leave it to our trade associations to comment on the policy recommendations, but as one our industry’s leading practitioners stated in Adweek, “If anyone of my clients wants a 101 on big data, I’m going to send them this report. This report is very relevant because a lot of what drives this business is programmatic media buying. There are millions of places to advertise on the Web, so an algorithm will decide what your likely audience will be.”

The report either cited or recognized such industry initiatives as the Data-Driven Marketing Institute’s “Value of Data Sharing” report, the Digital Advertising Alliance (disclosure, a client) and its own recent research on data sharing’s role in increasing advertising’s value, as well as DAA’s YourAdChoices.com site and consumer opt-out program for online interest-based advertising. There was care to note—even in the report’s title—that innovation is one of the benefits made possible by big data, and that this economic and social value needs to be enabled, if not fully supported and facilitated.

The report did raise red flags about commercial redlining, eligibility issues connected to employment, healthcare, finance and insurance, and data security (as noted)—but these important areas for consumer protection largely are already regulated, and even have industry backing for further regulation in certain areas such as breach notification. Most of these topics don’t have much to do with smarter marketing, even if some privacy advocates and academics hypothesize about that stretch.

Where do we go from here? The report did make several policy recommendations—and while there were some seeking to codify in law Fair Information Practices Principles (a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights), there was no attempt to call for an omnibus privacy protection law that treats all data and all data usage the same. If you haven’t had the chance, give it a read—I actually learned from it, and avoided tears and rage.