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White House: Discrimination potential in data use

By Eileen Sullivan

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, April 26 2014 10:30 a.m. MDT

In this April 17, 2014, file photo, President Barack Obama speaks in the White House briefing room in Washington. A White House review of how the government and private sector use large sets of data has found that such information could be used to discriminate against Americans on issues such as housing and employment even as it makes their lives easier in many ways. Obama requested the review in January, when he called for changes to some of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs that amass large amounts of data belonging to Americans and foreigners.

Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — A White House review of how the government and private sector use large sets of data has found that such information could be used to discriminate against Americans on issues such as housing and employment even as it makes their lives easier in many ways.

"Big data" is everywhere.

It allows mapping apps to ping cellphones anonymously and determine, in real time, what roads are the most congested. But it also can be used to target economically vulnerable people.

Federal laws have not kept up with the rapid development of technology in a way that would shield people from discrimination.

The review, expected to be released within the next week, is the Obama administration's first attempt at addressing the vast landscape of challenges, beyond national security and consumer privacy, posed by technological advancements.

President Barack Obama requested the review in January, when he 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 those programs also enables others used in the government and the private sector. The White House separately has reviewed the NSA programs and proposed changes to rein in the massive collection of Americans' phone records and emails.

"It was a moment to step back and say, 'Does this change our basic framework or our look at the way we're dealing with records and privacy,'" Obama's counselor, John Podesta, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"With the rapidity of the way technology changes, it's going to be hard to imagine what it's going to look like a generation from now. But at least we can look out over the horizon and say, 'Here are the trends. What do we anticipate the likely policy issues that it raises?'"

Podesta led the 90-day review, along with some of Obama's economic and science advisers. The goal, Podesta said, was to assess whether current laws and policies about privacy are sufficient.

But an unexpected concern emerged during White House officials' meetings with business leaders and privacy advocates: how big data could be used to target consumers and lead to discriminatory practices.

Civil rights leaders, for example, raised in discussions with the White House the issue of employers who use data to map where job applicants live and then rate them based on that, particularly in low-paying service jobs.

"While big data is revolutionizing commerce and government for the better, it is also supercharging the potential for discrimination," said Wade Henderson, president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Some employers might worry that if an applicant lives far enough away from a job, he or she may not stay in the position for long. As more jobs move out of the city and into the suburbs, this could create a hiring system based on class.

"You're essentially being dinged for a job for really arbitrary characteristics," said Chris Calabrese, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. "Use of this data has a real impact on peoples' lives."

The civil rights advocates could not offer specific examples of such injustices, but instead talked about how the data could be used in a discriminatory way.

Federal employment laws don't address this nuanced tactic, Calabrese said. Similarly, anti-discrimination laws for housing make it illegal to target customers based on credit reports. But the laws don't address the use of other data points that could group people into clusters based on information gleaned from social media.

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