You May Have to Pay More Based on Your Race, White House Fears

Report urges agencies to step up enforcement of civil-rights laws.

Shoppers wait in line while shopping at Toys'R'Us in Fort Worth, Texas.
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Brendan Sasso
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Brendan Sasso
May 1, 2014, 11:40 a.m.

People may be pay­ing more for products based on their age or the col­or of their skin, White House of­fi­cials fear.

Busi­nesses are in­creas­ingly col­lect­ing vast amounts of data on con­sumer be­ha­vi­or and as­sem­bling de­tailed pro­files on in­di­vidu­als. That data could lead com­pan­ies — either in­ten­tion­ally or in­ad­vert­ently — to dis­crim­in­ate against people in pri­cing, em­ploy­ment, hous­ing, health care, or oth­er op­por­tun­it­ies, the White House said in a re­port Thursday.

John Podesta, a seni­or ad­viser to Pres­id­ent Obama who led the “big data” re­view group that pre­pared the re­port, warned that new data-min­ing prac­tices threaten to “cir­cum­vent long-stand­ing civil-rights pro­tec­tions.”

The re­port urges gov­ern­ment agen­cies to im­prove their tech­nic­al ex­pert­ise so they can bet­ter spot and crack down on il­leg­al dis­crim­in­a­tion that re­lies on data col­lec­tion.

Firms can track which products people buy, the web­sites they browse, the emails they read, and even their GPS loc­a­tion. That in­form­a­tion can help tar­get more rel­ev­ant ads — such as a pro­mo­tion for a hor­ror film.

But the White House poin­ted to one study which found that people who search for “black-identi­fy­ing” names are more likely to be shown ads with the word “ar­rest” than people who search for “white-identi­fy­ing” names. Gov­ern­ment ser­vices aimed at people us­ing smart­phone apps could dis­ad­vant­age the poor or eld­erly (who are less likely to have smart­phones), the of­fi­cials warned in the re­port.

“‘Big data’ isn’t just a pri­vacy is­sue — it’s also a civil-rights is­sue,” Seeta Peña Gangadhar­an, a seni­or re­search fel­low with the New Amer­ica Found­a­tion, said in a state­ment ap­plaud­ing the White House re­port.

“New tech­no­lo­gies en­abling massive data col­lec­tion and ana­lys­is prom­ise many eco­nom­ic and prac­tic­al be­ne­fits, but they also have a dark side, cre­at­ing new risks of data-driv­en di­git­al dis­crim­in­a­tion and the re­in­force­ment of ex­ist­ing in­equal­it­ies through auto­mated de­cision-mak­ing.”

The re­port also re­it­er­ates the White House’s sup­port for the “Pri­vacy Bill of Rights” — a set of prin­ciples the White House out­lined in 2012 for how on­line firms should handle per­son­al in­form­a­tion. The White House urged Con­gress to en­act the prin­ciples in­to law at the time, but the is­sue has gone nowhere on Cap­it­ol Hill.

Com­merce Sec­ret­ary Penny Pritzker an­nounced Thursday that her de­part­ment will work with busi­nesses and pri­vacy groups to de­vel­op le­gis­lat­ive lan­guage for the prin­ciples.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion also an­nounced plans to ex­pand some fed­er­al pri­vacy pro­tec­tions to people out­side the United States. The Pri­vacy Act of 1974 cur­rently grants U.S. cit­izens rights to ac­cess cer­tain in­form­a­tion that the gov­ern­ment col­lects about them.

But the re­view doesn’t ad­dress Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency sur­veil­lance. Obama an­nounced the re­view group of “big data” is­sues in the same speech in Janu­ary when he out­lined re­forms to the NSA. Podesta ex­plained that the pres­id­ent be­lieved “big-data tech­no­lo­gies had to be hav­ing an im­pact else­where.”

Al­though the White House is push­ing for more pri­vacy-pro­tec­tion laws, of­fi­cials em­phas­ized that the col­lec­tion and use of large amounts of data can also lead to in­nov­at­ive new ser­vices and boost the eco­nomy.

For ex­ample, data can help doc­tors ana­lyze and com­bat dis­eases or help sci­ent­ists bet­ter un­der­stand cli­mate change, the White House said.

“We be­gin by re­cog­niz­ing that the United States is a lead­er in the field of big data and we want to en­sure that con­tin­ues,” Pritzker said.

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