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White House Report Highlights Discrimination Risks in Big Data

Last week, the White House published a wide-ranging report on the policy and legal implications of big data. Led by senior adviser John Podesta with the help of an interagency team, the report addressed challenges and opportunities presented by our “world of near-ubiquitous data collection.”

The report focused heavily on issues of fairness and highlighted risks of discrimination. It also cited civil rights groups’ recently published Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data.

An important conclusion of this study is that big data technologies can cause societal harms beyond damages to privacy, such as discrimination against individuals and groups. This discrimination can be the inadvertent outcome of the way big data technologies are structured and used. It can also be the result of intent to prey on vulnerable classes.

The report is an important call to arms, but hard work remains. Among other things, the report recommends that

[t]he federal government’s lead civil rights and consumer protection agencies should expand their technical expertise to be able to identify practices and outcomes facilitated by big data analytics that have a discriminatory impact on protected classes, and develop a plan for investigating and resolving violations of law.

For more in-depth coverage of the report — including some critiques — we recommend the blog posts from the ACLU and the EFF.

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