Countless powerful private sector organizations wrangle the power of big data regularly to collect a vast array of consumer information. The federal government has long understood the extensive mining capability of such information and its potential impact, as outlined by the most recent report from the White House. And the June 25 Supreme Court ruling in Riley v. California demonstrates that the judiciary also understands.

Governmental agencies already collect comprehensive data about everything from health care and defense concerns to student loans and tax returns. The Obama Administration has incorporated record access into policy since 2010 through its My Data initiatives, yielding services like Blue Button and Green Button.

Such mining will only increase, and on January 17, coincidentally the same day the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Riley case, President Obama recommended a review of the government’s current and projected usage of “big data,” a broad term describing the large amount of data that can be collected and analyzed to spot trends, perform research, prevent diseases and discover clues for finding solutions.

Last month, the Obama Administration issued the results of this study in their 79-page report, which proposes the White House’s intent to balance open data with privacy concerns. Though saturated with language bolstering it as a tool of progress, the federal government’s indexing of huge amounts of personal data in the post-Patriot Act and Wikileaks age will undoubtedly raise red flags among privacy advocates.

Big Data Used for Good

The federal government’s current leveraging of big data does offer some positive outcomes. For example, the report makes multiple mentions of fraud prevention — everything from the corporate level to individual scamming and claiming of illegible benefits.

During the conflict in Afghanistan, DARPA developed a program called Nexus 7that collected satellite and surveillance data to study traffic flow in combat areas to help determine probable locations of explosive devices. The Defense Department hopes to use such data mining to flag alarming information about government employees and contractors with classified clearance, undoubtedly a response to last September’s Naval Yard shooting.

First responders and FEMA also have Esri at their disposal; the powerful GIS tool tracks storm information against population density to assist in preparedness and resource management.

Risks of Government Data Mining

While these examples demonstrate how big data can save lives and improve governmental efficiency, the report is not deaf to the concerns of abuse and overreach. In 2012, the President initiated the “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights” blueprint to protect privacy. It aims to provide transparency concerning how personal information is used and give consumers control over how their information is handled.

Regardless, White House counselor John Podesta ominously noted, “technology can be used for the public good, but so too can it be used for individual harm … once information about citizens is compiled for a defined purpose, the temptation to use it for other purposes can be considerable.”  

As Politico reported, the ever controversial Department of Homeland Security recently attempted to database photographs of private license plates and track their movement (the uproar amongst privacy advocates thwarted this effort). That the FBI plans to store as many as 52 million facial images by the end of the year, including the identities of individuals never arrested, should concern anyone with a distaste for unwarranted monitoring.

More broadly, anonymous data can quickly become identifiable with enough information and the right tools.

Protecting Your Privacy

Such fears, in tandem with data-as-capital and general cybersecurity worries — both outside the scope of governmental oversight — simply add fuel to the fire. To address these worries, the report recommends updating and standardizing the Electronics Communication Privacy Act, originally passed long before the capabilities of big data existed, passing national data breach legislation and extending data privacy protections to non-U.S. citizens, among other recommendations.

Possible legislative protection aside, the Supreme Court passed a huge victoryto digital privacy advocates with the June 25 Riley decision, which extends Fourth Amendment protections to smartphone devices. Because of the vast amount of data modern smartphones have the capability of storing, the Court ruled that such technology essentially acts as documentation of people’s full lives and that law enforcement needs a warrant to search it.

The decision has far reaching effects, and could also provide a serious boost to lawsuits challenging the NSA’s collection of phone call data. As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “Modern cellphones are not just another technological device. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life.”

While the old and often-quoted Benjamin Franklin quip regarding liberty and safety is cliche, it’s also perpetually poignant, especially given the access provided in the digital age. Justice Roberts ended the SCOTUS opinion by writing, “[m]any forms of modern technology are making it easier and easier for both government and private entities to amass a wealth of information about the lives of ordinary Americans, and at the same time, ordinary Americans are choosing to make public much information that was seldom revealed to outsiders.”

Roberts continued with an appeal to lawmakers: “It would be very unfortunate if privacy protection in the 21st century were left primarily to the federal courts using the blunt instrument of the Fourth Amendment. Legislatures, elected by the people, are in a better position than we are to assess and respond to the changes that have already occurred and those that almost certainly will take place in the future.”

Podesta echoed this sentiment when he wrote, “Regardless of technological advances, the American public retains the power to structure the policies and laws that govern the use of new technologies in a way that protects foundational values.”

Both promise and danger lie within big data technology, in almost equal parts. With the power and personal information that big data grants governmental agencies, let’s hope we as an electorate remain equally vigilant.