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US government group urges big data and privacy overhaul

02 May 2014
The White House

A White House working group has recommended that the US revise the way that it tackles big data and privacy, and requested a halt on warrantless tapping of email and cloud content.

The Big Data and Privacy Working Group included president Obama's science advisor John Holdren, his economic advisor Jeffrey Zients, and other senior administration officials. They studied the situation after Obama asked for a 90-day review in January this year.

The group has now published its report and said that the laws that cover big data and cloud content are out of date and in need of revision. In particular it recommended that the Reagan-era Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) be amended.

It said in a statement: "The laws that govern protections afforded to our communications were written before email, the internet and cloud computing came into wide use. Congress should amend ECPA to ensure the standard of protection for online, digital content is consistent with that afforded in the physical world, including by removing archaic distinctions between email left unread or over a certain age.

"We conclude that we must find a way to preserve our privacy values in both the domestic and international marketplace. We urgently need to build capacity in the federal government to identify and prevent new modes of discrimination that could be enabled by big data.

"We must ensure that law enforcement agencies using big data technologies do so responsibly, and that our fundamental privacy rights remain protected."

This is a review and its recommendations are not binding. The panel said that it hopes that its findings inspire some debate and some change in the use of data.

This is the second move against the ECPA in a week, and earlier a collection of organisations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, co-signed a letter asking Obama to reform it. Privacy and pressure groups have been making such requests for years.

Last year V3 reported that ECPA data requests were on the rise, with Google announcing a spike.

The recent joint letter suggests that the White House has a reluctance to tackle the ECPA, adding that previous efforts have not elicited a response.

"Updating our electronic privacy laws has enormous popular and political support. 100,000 Americans signed a petition in November 2013 urging your support for ECPA reform, That petition has still not received a response," they wrote.

You have a rare opportunity to work with Congress to pass legislation that would advance the rights of almost every American. Please act now to support meaningful privacy reform.

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Dave Neal

Dave Neal is a reporter at The INQUIRER. Previously he worked at, VNUnet, and IT Week in editor and journalist roles.

He started his career when the Y2K bug was a front page story and remains committed to covering the interesting world of technology news.

He left the world of office working four years ago and now represents The INQUIRER from home in Kent with his dog.

Dave has been quoted in papers including the London Metro.

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