Jules, Omer and Chris Discuss the Challenges of Big Data and Consumer Review Boards


FPF’s Co-Chair and Executive Director Jules Polonetsky, Senior Fellow Omer Tene, and Co-Chair Christopher Wolf discussed the challenges facing President Obama with respect to big data in a new post for the IAPP.  The post argues that balancing the benefits of data analytics against attendant risks to civil liberties presents the biggest public policy challenge of our time.

FPF is currently developing a toolkit designed to help privacy professionals perform a comprehensive, rigorous cost-benefit analysis to determine how best to pursue their big data goals. Companies should have a clear framework to use in order to evaluate how a data-driven project will affect their consumers. Recent articles about “people analytics” to guide hiring practices to a school’s tracking of its students add additional examples that make it clear that a “practical application of fair information principles that accounts for modern day realities of collection and use” has become increasingly necessary.

One potential path forward involves the creation of “Consumer Subject Review Boards,” an idea discussed by Ryan Calo.* Such review boards would assess and evaluate big data projects’ rewards and associated risks. They would play an instrumental role in revitalizing consumer trust and mitigating some of the risks associated with innovative uses of consumer data. However, there are still questions that must be answered before such review boards could be deployed in practice.

First, what type of issues would a review board address? Would it be focused on addressing only privacy dilemmas, or would it seek to anticipate other ethical issues? As Evan Selinger and Patrick Lin write: “A technology ethics board . . . can be an invaluable canary in the coalmine—scouting for explosive issues in advance of emerging technology and before the law eventually turns its attention to these new problems and the company itself.” Clearly, a review board would need to have a clear understanding of its proper subject-matter scope.

Another question is whether the review boards should be in-house or independent. An in-house review board would benefit from close familiarity with its company’s data practices, but would lack the credibility of an independent entity. Similarly, should the opinions of a review board be confidential or publicly available? Confidential opinions do not instill as much consumer trust; however, public opinions risk being watered down to mitigate future litigation risks, and could potentially chill valuable innovation.  Some companies have privacy advisory boards already – is a Consumer Review Board a more formal example of a privacy board?  What methodology will the members use?

We look forward to continuing to explore this promising idea.


* See also Malcolm Crompton’s suggestion of ethics boards for privacy issues.