FTC Calls for 'Reclaim Your Name' Response to Big Data

Big data offers big benefits. But it needs a bit more managing when it comes to consumer rights and privacy, says the FTC.

Big data is a good thing. But it needs to do a better job of co-existing with people's rights to privacy and to knowing what businesses know about them, Julie Brill, a commissioner with the Federal Trade Commission, said during a keynote address at the 23rd Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference in Washington, D.C., June 26.

We post photos on Facebook, tell our whereabouts to Google Now, query sensitive medical conditions online and are filmed by cameras on street corners. Day and night, said Brill, Americans add to the "already bursting veins from which data miners are pulling pure gold."

She added that Americans are also more aware than ever of how much of our personal data is "free-floating in cyberspace, ripe for any data miner—government or otherwise—to collect, use, package and sell."

What fewer of us know or understand is what information is being culled about us, how to correct inaccuracies and how, if we prefer, to detach our names from those data troves.

The data of our lives is valuable for doing everything from stopping infections to making traffic flow more smoothly to selling more of everything from vacations to soap.

"I want to make clear that big data is not synonymous with the evil empire," said Brill.

But the impact of identities being attached to data can be problematic, not only for reasons of privacy but to prevent "eligibility discriminations" from being made—determinations based on things like whether a person has an existing health condition, is financially unstable or has been engaged in fraud—on incorrect data.

"The FTC has called on companies trafficking in big data to take both technological and behavioral steps to make sure the information they use in their advertising is truly and completely de-identified," said Brill.

"They should do everything technically possible to strip their data of identifying markets; they should make a public commitment not to try to re-identify the data; and they should contractually prohibit downstream recipients from doing the same."

She added that she's also asked major credit reporting companies to create a system that makes it easier for consumers to view their information and correct inaccuracies—and, when a correction is made, for the correction to be reflected in the records of all other credit report companies as well.

Then Brill used the keynote to introduce still another initiative, one she's named Reclaim Your Name.

"Reclaim Your Name would empower the consumer to find out how brokers are collecting and using data; give her access to information that data brokers have amassed about her; allow her to opt-out if she learns a data broker is selling her information for marketing purposes; and provide her the opportunity to correct errors in information used for substantive decisions—like credit, insurance, employment and other benefits," said Brill.

Data brokers that participate in the initiative would agree to adjust the way they handle data and be sensitive to the type of data collected.

"As the data they handle or create becomes more sensitive—relating to health conditions, sexual orientation and financial condition—the data brokers would provide greater transparency and more robust notice and choice to consumers," said Brill.

"The ability to claim your name—or in the case of big data, Reclaim Your Name—is as American as Mom and apple pie," she said. "I can't believe consumers will give that up easily, even for all the convenience, entertainment and wonder that cyberspace currently has on offer."

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