WASHINGTON – The White House, hoping to move the national conversation on privacy beyond data harvesting by intelligence agencies to the practices of companies like Google and Facebook, released a long-anticipated report on Thursday that recommends requiring private companies to release information they gather from their customers online.
The report, whose chief author is John D. Podesta, a senior White House adviser, is part of the administration’s reaction to the disclosures of global surveillance by Edward J. Snowden, the former contractor for the National Security Agency. The effort is viewed with suspicion in Silicon Valley, where companies see it as the start of a government effort to regulate how they can profit from the data they collect from email and Web surfing habits.
Podesta, in briefing reporters on Thursday, pointed specifically to the terms of service that consumers click on, almost always without reading them, when they sign up for free email accounts or download apps for their smartphones. He asked whether that process “still allows us to control and protect our privacy as the data is used and reused,” often to identify users’ travel, buying and Web browsing habits.
The report focuses on mosaic techniques that allow companies, in the guise of collecting anonymous data from large groups of users, to identify an individual’s activities online.
The report suggests steps Congress could take, including a mandatory system that would force firms to report data breaches – like the one that led to the theft of credit card data from 100 million Target customers last year. A similar measure failed two years ago as part of a broader cyberprotection bill.
The report also recommends extending U.S. privacy rights to foreigners, on the theory that there are no boundaries when it comes to the data collected online. President Obama declared in January that the government would do the same in the treatment of data it collected through the NSA and other intelligence groups.
Podesta, in an interview, said the president was surprised during his review of the NSA’s activities that “the same technologies are not only used by the intelligence community, but far more broadly in the public and private spheres because there is so much collection” from the Internet, smartphones and other sensors.
“You are shedding data everywhere,” Podesta said.
The report notes the risk of data being used to discriminate against some Americans in new ways that are otherwise prohibited by civil and consumer rights legislation.
“Just as neighborhoods can serve as a proxy for racial or ethnic identity,” it says, “there are new worries that big data technologies could be used to ‘digitally redefine’ 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.”
Podesta said the report was not part of an effort to use the NSA disclosures for political advantage.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that the Podesta report identified the important issues and that its policy recommendations addressed the major concerns of privacy groups.
“The implementation of those proposals,” Rotenberg said, “is the big challenge now.”