A White House review of how the government and private sector use large sets of data has found that such information could be used to discriminate against Americans on issues such as employment. Findings and recommendations of the review, “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values," were released today (May 1, 2014). The report is the culmination of a 90-day review by the Obama administration, spearheaded by Counselor John Podesta and including the two Cabinet members - Penny Pritzker (Secretary of Commerce) and Ernest J. Moniz (Secretary of Energy).
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. Americans’ relationship with data should expand, not diminish, their opportunities and potential. (cover letter to President Obama)
Some of the most profound challenges revealed during this review concern how big data analytics may lead to disparate inequitable treatment, particularly of disadvantaged groups, or create such an opaque decision-making environment that individual autonomy is lost in an impenetrable set of algorithms. (p. 10)
Regardless of technological advances, the American public retains the power to structure the policies and laws that govern the use of new technologies in a way that protects foundational values.
Big data is changing the world. But it is not changing Americans’ belief in the value of protecting personal privacy, of ensuring fairness, or of preventing discrimination. (p. 10)
[T]he civil rights community is concerned that such algorithmic decisions raise the specter of “redlining” in the digital economy—the potential to discriminate against the most vulnerable classes of our society under the guise of neutral algorithms. (p. 46)
An important conclusion of this study is that big data technologies can cause societal harms beyond damages to privacy, such as discrimination against individuals and groups. This discrimination can be the inadvertent outcome of the way big data technologies are structured and used. It can also be the result of intent to prey on vulnerable classes. (p. 51)
We have taken considerable steps as a society to mandate fairness in specific domains, including employment, credit, insurance, health, housing, and education. Existing legislative and regulatory protections govern how personal data can be used in each of these contexts. Though predictive algorithms are permitted to be used in certain ways, the data that goes into them and the decisions made with their assistance are subject to some degree of transparency, correction, and means of redress. For important decisions like employment, credit, and insurance, consumers have a right to learn why a decision was made against them and what information was used to make it, and to correct the underlying information if it is in error.
Just as neighborhoods can serve as a proxy for racial or ethnic identity, there are new worries that big data technologies could be used to “digitally redline” unwanted groups, either as customers, employees, tenants, or recipients of credit. A significant finding of this report is that big data could enable new forms of discrimination and predatory practices.
Whether big data will build greater equality for all Americans or exacerbate existing inequalities depends entirely on how its technologies are applied in the years to come, what kinds of protections are present in the law, and how the law is enforced. (p. 53)
Putting greater emphasis on a responsible use framework has many potential advantages. It shifts the responsibility from the individual, who is not well equipped to understand or contest consent notices as they are currently structured in the marketplace, to the entities that collect, maintain, and use data. Focusing on responsible use also holds data collectors and users accountable for how they manage the data and any harms it causes, (p. 56)
An important finding of this review is that while big data can be used for great social good, it can also be used in ways that perpetrate social harms or render outcomes that have inequitable impacts, even when discrimination is not intended. Small biases have the potential to become cumulative, affecting a wide range of outcomes for certain disadvantaged groups. Society must take steps to guard against these potential harms by ensuring power is appropriately balanced between individuals and institutions, whether between citizen and government, consumer and firm, or employee and business.have inequitable impacts, even when discrimination is not intended. Small biases have the potential to become cumulative, affecting a wide range of outcomes for certain dis-advantaged groups. (pp. 58-59)
Expand Technical Expertise to Stop Discrimination. The federal government’s lead civil rights and consumer protection agencies should expand their technical expertise to be able to identify practices and outcomes facilitated by big data analytics that have a discriminatory impact on protected classes, and develop a plan for investigating and resolving violations of law. (p. 60)
We must begin a national conversation on big data, discrimination, and civil liberties. (p. 64)
The federal government must pay attention to the potential for big data technologies to facilitate discrimination inconsistent with the country’s laws and values
RECOMMENDATION: The federal government’s lead civil rights and consumer protection agencies, including the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, should expand their technical expertise to be able to identify practices and outcomes facilitated by big data analytics that have a discriminatory impact on protected classes, and develop a plan for investigating and resolving violations of law in such cases. In assessing the potential concerns to address, the agencies may consider the classes of data, contexts of collection, and segments of the population that warrant particular attention, including for example genomic information or information about people with disabilities. (p. 65)