White House Releases Report on Big Data and Discrimination



Building on previous publications from the President’s Big Data Working Group in 2014 and 2015, the White House has released a new report analyzing the confluence of “Big Data” and civil rights. The report strongly supported the potential Big Data holds, lauding the benefits society stands to reap from proper data analysis. This enthusiasm was tempered by an awareness that using technology can exasperate inequities; without proper caution going forward, the blind application of technology may serve to amplify preexisting biases.

The report divides its hopes and fears over big data into two categories: problems with algorithmic inputs and the inner workings of the algorithms themselves. The first category comprises fears over the integrity of underlying data sets; cautioning that data sets which are incomplete, outdated or unrepresentative may perpetuate their errors or biases when used as algorithmic grist. The second category addresses opaque and increasingly complex algorithms which reject users or narrow their options based on personal data. These categories are illustrated by case studies in credit access, education, employment and criminal justice.

For direction, the report seeks further conversation between market participants, academia, the government, and the public on data ethics. Specifically, the report emphasizes due process in data-based decisions, including allowing users to correct data and implementing an appeals process for those affected by these decisions. The administration hopes that the end result of this discussion will be an algorithmic best practices which is transparent and equitable.

FPF has been an early and eager participant in this discussion and was pleased to see the report’s appreciation for the potential of Big Data. In dealing with the risks of discrimination posed by realization of Big Data’s potential, FPF sees strong data ethics framework as a necessary and effective addition to the raw potential of technology. Read about FPF’s ethics work for an understanding of the latest scholarship in this promising area.