White House on NSA: Facebook Does It Too

The Obama administration studies data-privacy fears.

This February 25, 2013 photo taken in Washington, D.C., shows the splash page for the Internet social media giant Facebook.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
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Brendan Sasso
March 3, 2014, 10:23 a.m.

The Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency may be col­lect­ing data on mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans, but the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion wants you to know that lots of private com­pan­ies do the same thing.

“On Face­book, there are some 350 mil­lion pho­tos up­loaded and shared every day. On You­Tube, 100 hours of video is up­loaded every minute,” John Podesta, a top ad­viser to Pres­id­ent Obama, said Monday dur­ing a con­fer­ence at MIT. “And we are only in the very nas­cent stage of the ‘In­ter­net of Things,’ where our ap­pli­ances will com­mu­nic­ate with each oth­er and sensors may be nearly ubi­quit­ous.”

Podesta is lead­ing a work­ing group that will soon present a re­port to the pres­id­ent on the pri­vacy is­sues sur­round­ing “big data” — the col­lec­tion and stor­age of massive amounts of per­son­al in­form­a­tion. Obama an­nounced the work­ing group in Janu­ary in the same speech where he out­lined re­forms to the NSA’s con­tro­ver­sial sur­veil­lance pro­grams.

A vari­ety of tech­no­lo­gic­al ad­vances have meant that we leave an elec­tron­ic trail for al­most everything we do — in­clud­ing the people we con­tact, the web­sites we vis­it, and even our phys­ic­al loc­a­tion. The im­pli­cit mes­sage from the White House is that while there may be le­git­im­ate pri­vacy con­cerns re­lated to the gov­ern­ment’s ac­cess to that in­form­a­tion, private com­pan­ies should also face scru­tiny.

In his speech at MIT, Podesta ar­gued that the col­lec­tion of massive amounts of data can lead to power­ful in­nov­a­tions in areas such as health care, edu­ca­tion, and pub­lic safety. Com­pan­ies and the gov­ern­ment can bet­ter ana­lyze dis­eases or traffic con­ges­tion, for ex­ample. But he ar­gued there must also be ad­equate pri­vacy safe­guards.

“We also re­cog­nize that en­sur­ing the con­tin­ued strength of the In­ter­net re­quires ap­ply­ing our time­less pri­vacy val­ues to these new tech­no­lo­gies, as we have throughout our his­tory with each new mode of com­mu­nic­a­tion from the mail to the tele­phone to the so­cial net­work,” he said.

Com­merce Sec­ret­ary Penny Pritzker, who also spoke at the Mas­sachu­setts event, ar­gued that pri­vacy pro­tec­tions are ne­ces­sary for build­ing trust in In­ter­net ser­vices, which is ul­ti­mately ne­ces­sary for eco­nom­ic growth.

“All of the data in the world is worth­less un­less con­sumers trust the com­pan­ies they buy from, un­less cit­izens trust their gov­ern­ments, and un­less in­sti­tu­tions of all kinds trust each oth­er to play by the rules,” she said.

Pritzker touted the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to im­prove on­line pri­vacy pro­tec­tion. The Com­merce De­part­ment, for ex­ample, or­gan­ized talks between in­dustry groups and pri­vacy ad­voc­ates to de­vel­op a vol­un­tary code of con­duct for pri­vacy dis­clos­ures on mo­bile apps. The ad­min­is­tra­tion is also now work­ing to im­ple­ment guidelines to im­prove the cy­ber­se­cur­ity of crit­ic­al in­fra­struc­ture pro­viders, such as phone com­pan­ies and banks.

In 2012, the White House an­nounced a “pri­vacy bill of rights” — a set of prin­ciples for how com­pan­ies should handle con­sumer in­form­a­tion. The White House urged Con­gress to en­act the prin­ciples in­to law, but the is­sue hasn’t moved on Cap­it­ol Hill.

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