The White House and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) plan to co-host a daylong workshop on Big Data and privacy March 3. Titled “Big Data and Privacy: Advancing the State of the Art in Technology and Practice,” the event will include keynote speeches by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and White House counselor John Podesta. (The workshop is open to the public, with registration.)
The MIT Big Data Initiative at CSAIL regularly hosts workshops and programs that examine how so-called “Big Data” is changing society. That isn’t unusual; lots of universities organize events on data analytics and similar concepts. What’s a bit more atypical is the White House’s involvement: why is the executive branch partnering with a university for a discussion on data and privacy?
The White House’s official statement for the March 3 event doesn’t offer much insight into that question. “Big data has opened up so many possibilities for research, innovation, and education, while also demonstrating how important it is to use these technologies appropriately and responsibly,” wrote Daniel Weitzner, director of CSAIL’s Decentralized Information Group and former deputy chief technology officer for Internet policy in the White House. “There’s a lot of complexity to handling these issues, and our faculty look forward to exploring them at the workshop.”
That’s about as cookie-cutter as it gets. But the Obama administration is concerned about the privacy issues surrounding data analytics, especially in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of the NSA’s metadata collection programs. Following a Jan. 17 speech in which he announced some major changes in how the NSA collects data, Obama asked Podesta and Pritzker to lead a review of how “Big Data” will affect how ordinary citizens live and work, as well as how businesses operate.
In a Jan. 23 posting on the White House Website, Podesta offered a little more insight into the scope of the review:
“When we complete our work, we expect to deliver to the President a report that anticipates future technological trends and frames the key questions that the collection, availability, and use of ‘big data’ raise—both for our government, and the nation as a whole. It will help identify technological changes to watch, whether those technological changes are addressed by the U.S.’s current policy framework and highlight where further government action, funding, research and consideration may be required.”
He also suggested that the White House would collaborate with other entities on the effort—hence the setup with MIT. As with any government initiative, however, the big question is whether all that consulting with the experts in the field, coupled with the tons of paperwork and discussion likely generated by the final report, will yield any policy changes in how the U.S. government approaches Big Data.