White House tackles big data, analog as well as digital

The White House Thursday released a report addressing issues at the intersection of big data and privacy. The report, titled “Big Data and Privacy: a Technological Perspective,” was prepared by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which includes scientists and engineers appointed by the President.

Fortunately, the advisers don't restrict their analysis to big digital data but allude to analog data as well. The latter is of considerable interest to the technical community, as noted by Mike Santori, business and technology fellow at National Instruments, in an interview last fall. Santori said at the time, Big Analog Data “…struck a chord with a lot of people. A number of customers have come to talk to us about building large, distributed systems where they are generating, collecting, and trying to manage a lot of information.”

In the White House report released yesterday, the PCAST team writes, “The ubiquity of computing and electronic communication technologies has led to the exponential growth of data from both digital and analog sources. New capabilities to gather, analyze, disseminate, and preserve vast quantities of data raise new concerns about the nature of privacy and the means by which individual privacy might be compromised or protected.”

The report discusses privacy in the face of computing technology advances, noting that privacy “…encompasses not only the famous 'right to be let alone'…but also the ability to share information selectively but not publically.”

The report traces conflicts between privacy and technology throughout American history, citing the public disclosure of private facts in mass-media newspapers of the 19th century to wiretapping in the 20th century. Now in the 21st century, the report addresses not just big data but the uses to which it can be put though data mining and analytics.

The report elaborates on Big Analog Data: “When information is 'born analog,' it arises from the characteristics of the physical world. Such information becomes accessible electronically when it impinges on a sensor such as a camera, microphone, or other engineered device. When data are born analog, they are likely to contain more information than the minimum necessary for their immediate purpose, and for valid reasons. One reason is for robustness of the desired 'signal' in the presence of variable 'noise.' Another is technological convergence, the increasing use of standardized components (e.g., cell‐phone cameras) in new products (e.g., home alarm systems capable of responding to gesture).”

The report big analog and big digital data can be brought together through data fusion to generate even more data.

The report offers five recommendations:

  • Policy should focus on the use of big data and not its collection and analysis.
  • Policy should not be embedded in particular technical solutions (which may become obsolete) but instead in intended outcomes.
  • With support from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Networking and Information Technology Research and Development agencies should strengthen US research into privacy-related technologies and related social science areas.
  • The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy should work with educational institutions and professional societies to encourage education and training opportunities concerning privacy protection.
  • The US should take the lead at home and abroad in adopting policies that promote privacy protecting technologies.

Elizabeth Dwoskin in the Wall Street Journal reports, “President Barack Obama requested the report in January as part of his review of the National Security Agency following disclosures by former contractor Edward Snowden.” She continues, “But the report steered clear of NSA tactics, focusing instead on how businesses and domestic law enforcement access and use information on Americans.”

You can read the complete 76-page PCAST report here.

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