The White House is asking Congress to pass new privacy laws that would add more safeguards for Americans' data and provide more protections for emails sought in the course of a law enforcement investigation.
The recommendations are among six offered by President Obama's counselor John Podesta in a report released Thursday. While large sets of data make Americans' lives easier and can help save lives, the report noted, they also could be used to discriminate against Americans in areas such as housing and employment.
"Big data" is everywhere. It allows mapping apps to ping cellphones anonymously and determine, in real time, what roads are the most congested. It enables intelligence agencies to amass large amounts of emails and phone records to help root out terrorists. And it could be used to target economically vulnerable people.
At Obama's request, Podesta and the president's top economic and science advisers conducted a 90-day review of how the government and private sector use large sets of data. While the recommendations are not binding, they do track with many of the president's previous calls for addressing privacy issues.
Obama has called for changes to some of the National Security Agency's surveillance programs that amass large amounts of data belonging to Americans and foreigners. The technology that enabled the surveillance programs also enables other programs used by the government and the private sector, such as data on financial records, health care systems and social media. The White House separately has reviewed the NSA programs and proposed changes to rein in the massive collection of Americans' phone records and emails.
"The president, of course, recognized that big-data technologies had to be having an impact elsewhere in government -- in the economy and in society," Podesta said Thursday.
The report's recommendations include passing more privacy laws, doing more to protect student and consumer data, ensuring data is not used for discriminatory purposes and giving non-U.S. citizens more privacy protections. They address the many angles of criticism levied at the Obama administration following the disclosures of former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden.
Strengthening privacy for emails could provide more protections in the course of a law enforcement investigation. Under the current law, in many cases the government can access emails without getting a warrant from a judge. Many consider that 1986 law to be outdated, and the recommendation represents the first clear message from the Obama administration that it supports updating the electronic communications law.
"We have artificial differences and archaic distinctions between email that's left unread or periods of time that need to be rectified," Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said.
As technology advanced, Americans' physical property received more protections than electronic property. Privacy advocates have long called for emails to be treated the same as physical mail. If law enforcement wants access to someone's physical mail, a warrant based on probable cause must be issued by a judge. However, if law enforcement wants access to emails, in many cases they can be obtained without a judge's sign-off.
"By recognizing that online and offline communications should be treated the same, the report lays the groundwork for keeping everyone's emails, texts and photos private and secure," said Chris Calabrese, legislative council for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Even after the Snowden revelations, there's little indication that the climate for taking up privacy legislation has shifted on Capitol Hill in an election year.
Similarly, laws that protect against discrimination have not kept up with the technological advancements either. Civil rights leaders have raised concerns about the potential for employers who use data to map where job applicants live will then rate them based on the time it would take to get to work, particularly in low-paying service jobs.
One company that describes itself as a leader in "big data workforce optimization," discussed the commute scenario in a 2013 report. "The distance that employees live from work affects how long they choose to stay at a job," according to a 2013 workforce performance report by Evolv, a San Francisco-based company. "Unsurprisingly, employees that live 0-5 miles from their place of work have the longest median tenure."
Civil rights advocates say that as more jobs move out of cities and into the suburbs, a hiring system based on class could evolve.
The White House is also renewing its call for national data-breach legislation, which could have more resonance after hackers lifted personal data from millions of shoppers at Target and Nieman Marcus in recent months. The legislation would cull the patchwork of state laws into a single federal requirement for how data breaches should be reported to consumers and law enforcement.