The White House has released a report urging the government to protect consumer privacy in the age of big data, where intelligence agencies and private companies alike can collect insane amounts of information about essentially anyone who uses the Internet. The report is at once a victory for those wary of technology companies’ ubiquity and a loss for those who view it as a smoke-and-mirrors defense of consumer privacy meant to shift attention from spy agencies.
The report’s recommendations are broad. It urges Congress to amend an outdated law so it can afford similar privacy to digital possessions that it does to physical ones; to extend the protections granted to Americans to non-Americans; and to increase technical expertise so the government can protect civil liberties in an era when most anything is decided by algorithms. It also suggests that rules should be written to protect students’ personal information, and that companies should be forced to report when large data breaches, like the one at Target, occur.
The report touches on many important issues many people face every time they decide to use the Internet. Email services have been shut down because they refused to hand over the keys to their users’ personal information, many companies have faced intense scrutiny for gathering data about students, and Internet users the world over distrust American tech companies. If its recommendations are implemented, the Internet would be a bit better than it is right now.
But it’s unclear if any of these recommendations will lead to actual change. These reports, like the one released by the Obama administration last year, make for good public relations but are often just stacks of paper that will be ignored shortly after their release. And, as the New York Times notes, focusing on these issues to distract from the National Security Agency’s controversial programs is just diversionary pandering meant to distract from other problems.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]