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White House looks at how 'Big Data' can discriminate

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration is preparing to release a report next week that will outline concerns that current U.S. privacy laws and regulations do not do enough to protect consumers from potential discrimination due to "big data" algorithms that crunch through information gathered online, a White House official said on Saturday.

The review, led by President Barack Obama's senior counselor, John Podesta, was sparked by the revelations last year of former spy contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked classified information about how the National Spy Agency uses big data analytics methods for surveillance.

Obama has moved to rein in some of the activity by U.S. intelligence agencies. But he also asked Podesta to take a 90-day look at how the private sector, medical researchers and other parts of government are innovating with big data, and whether privacy is at risk.

"The challenges to our privacy do not come from government alone. Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze our data, and use it for commercial purposes," Obama said when he announced Podesta's review in January.

Podesta and other senior officials have met with Internet companies, data brokers and advertising agencies, academic researchers and privacy and civil liberties groups privately and in three public workshops to explore the opportunities and issues involving big data.

"It was a moment to step back and say, 'Does this change our basic framework or our look at the way we're dealing with records and privacy?'" Podesta said in an interview with the Associated Press published on Saturday.

Earlier this month, at a workshop at the University of California, Berkeley, Podesta said he believed updates were needed for the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a statute governing Internet communications, which he helped draft as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill in 1984.

Podesta described the advances that big data has helped make in climate science and medical treatment and research. But he also pointed out that information shared on social networks about race, religion, age and sexual orientation could be used for ill.

"It's easy to imagine how big data technology, if used to cross legal lines we have been careful to set, could end up reinforcing existing inequities in housing, credit, employment, health and education," he said.

He described a program called "Street Bump" in Boston that detected pot-holes using sensors in smartphones of citizens who had downloaded an app. The program inadvertently directed repair crews to wealthier neighborhoods, where people were more likely to carry smartphones and download the app. The city later fixed the app.

"The lesson here is that we need to pay careful attention to what unexpected outcomes the use of big data might lead to, and how to remedy any unintended discrimination or inequality that may result," Podesta said at the workshop.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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