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Statement from U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker on Big Data and Privacy Working Group Review Findings

Thursday, May 1, 2014
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U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker today issued a statement on the findings of the White House’s big data and privacy working group review. At the request of President Obama, Counselor to the President John Podesta convened senior government officials – including Secretary Pritzker, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, the President’s Science Advisor John Holdren, and the President’s Economic Advisor Jeff Zients – to conduct a wide-ranging review of big data and privacy to explore how the technologies are changing our economy, government and society. During a 90-day review, the working group sought input from the private sector, government, privacy advocates, and other stakeholders, and today presented a report to President Obama with their findings and recommendations.

The following is Secretary Pritzker’s statement on the report (“Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values”):

“In January, the President announced that he had asked John Podesta and a group of leaders in the Administration to conduct a comprehensive review of the impact big data technologies are having on a range of economic, social, and government activities. I have been honored to be part of this review.

This is an enormous topic. We started with a 90-day scoping exercise, which has produced this report. The point of this exercise has been to better understand the issues, identify areas for governmental and private sector follow up, to advance the dialogue and to recommend next steps. We met with leaders from the private sector, government, privacy advocates, and other stakeholders. We also held three public conferences, at MIT, NYU, and UC Berkeley, and we put out a Request for Information, seeking public comments. I first want to thank John for his terrific leadership on this issue.

We recognize that the United States is a leader in this field of Big Data – and we want to ensure that continues. And one of our core priorities here at the Department is how we unleash more of our government data – to create more innovation and economic opportunity. Both of these are central themes in this report. I have been very active in making sure the perspective of business is at the table in this conversation – and the Department of Commerce will continue to do that.

This report is only the beginning of what will be a continuing dialogue among government, business, consumers, entrepreneurs, and other stakeholders about maximizing the benefits and minimizing the risks of big data. That ongoing dialogue will focus on ensuring that companies and consumers have a sound legal and policy framework for innovation.

Today, all of us know that we are living in a big data economy. Cars, appliances, and even what we wear – think fitness watches – have sensors in them that collect data about us. Big data can be used to predict the weather, detect problems in airline engines before they happen, give consumers more and better choices, and even cure or prevent diseases.

We also know that companies innovate best when they can pair good ideas with a clear understanding of what their obligations and responsibilities are. And consumers want confidence that data about them is used in a responsible way.

Thus, the major thing I have been struck by engaging with all the groups we have talked with is the promise of big data to our country and our economy. It is very clear that data can improve our lives and create economic opportunity. However, big data also raises challenging questions about how we safeguard privacy and civil liberties.

We as Americans should take great pride that we are leaders in this field, and that our companies have led the way in this technological revolution. Data and analytics are a powerful new fuel for our economy. For example, a McKinsey study found the potential of open data could help unlock more than $3 trillion in additional value to the global economy. In the United States, this number is more than $1 trillion.

But while U.S. companies have led the way, we must remember that these technologies touch not just American citizens, but consumers around the globe and so we must consider big data as an international issue. As we discuss in the report, the increase in the volume of information, variety of information, and velocity of information processing has produced incredible innovation and serious potential for the future.

One issue though that is also a matter of concern is privacy. This is a fundamental issue for Americans, and people throughout the world. This Administration has also taken personal privacy seriously, including release of the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights in 2012. In the course of listening to stakeholders, technology experts, and others in this process, it is undeniable that big data challenges several of the key assumptions that underpin current privacy frameworks, especially around collection and use. 

I believe these big data developments warrant consideration in the context of how to viably ensure privacy protection and what practical limits exist to the practice of “notice and consent.” The values of the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights are immutable and our efforts in the coming months will reflect that.

The Commerce Department will now take the lead as recommended in the report in examining these issues and their impact on the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.  We will examine the issues raised during this 90-day review, and other comments from the public, and work on drafting potential legislation for the President to consider.

Privacy is a worldwide value that the United States government respects and it is for this reason that our departments and agencies are going to work to apply the Privacy Act to non-U.S. persons where practicable. We should be leading an international conversation on big data that reaffirms our commitment to interoperable global privacy frameworks.  

While there are risks to privacy that come with the promise of Big Data, there is also extraordinary potential in privacy protecting technologies. We also call for investment in these privacy protecting technologies and R&D, which can only help us harness the potential for Big Data, while also protecting our core values. At the same time, our National Institute of Standards and Technology – one of the crown jewels of our government – will help support our public-private efforts on technical standards and research in this area. 

With any powerful new technology comes the potential to create amazing opportunity. Yet we must also be sensitive to address the challenges these technologies may bring. That is what this effort is all about – creating a dialogue of engagement – both here in the United States and internationally – to ensure we reap the full benefits of big data – with governments, businesses, entrepreneurs, law enforcement and consumers. As we discuss this evolving topic, we need to apply our values to the rapid pace of technological change and continue to unleash the full potential of data for the benefit of our economy and society.”

Click here to view the big data and privacy working group report, and here for a fact sheet on its findings.