FTC Releases Report on Benefits and Risks of Big Data

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This week the FTC released a report exploring the use of Big Data analytics. The 33-page document, Big Data: A Tool for Inclusion or Exclusion? Understanding the Issues, is based on the FTC’s Big Data Workshop on September 17, 2014. The report outlines some of the benefits and risks of Big Data use, and surveys the existing consumer-protective legal framework, including the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act), and a spectrum of equal opportunity laws.

In the report, we were pleased to see a thoughtful discussion of some of the benefits of Big Data use, including to provide better education, access to credit, and tailored healthcare. Included were many of the examples described in FPF’s report co-authored with the Anti-Defamation League, Big Data: A Tool for Fighting Discrimination and Empowering Groups. In this publication, we highlighted many of the ways in which data can be harnessed to combat discrimination, including to increase workplace diversity and access to employment opportunities. Featured prominently in the FTC’s report were many of the panel comments of FPF Founder Christopher Wolf, who spoke at the 2014 workshop on the uses of Big Data for combating discrimination.

Also highlighted were some of the comments of Senior Fellow Peter Swire, who has written that existing anti-discrimination laws in some sectors—such as housing, access to credit, and employment—already apply to online advertising. These laws, most notably ECOA, Fair Housing Act, and Title VII, prohibit discrimination in both online and offline marketing, and the online ecosystem may in fact lend itself to better disparate impact analysis.

The FTC’s report will certainly not be the last word on the subject in the world of Big Data and privacy. Followers of the ongoing conversation around Big Data should look next to the upcoming White House report (following up on a 2015 Interim Report) exploring the implications for big data technologies for civil rights, including for broadening opportunities and preventing discrimination.