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    Opinion at Slate: Big Data and the Underground Railroad

    In a column at Slate, Alvaro M. Bedoya, the founding executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, writes about “big data” and what widespread data collection on individuals can mean for civil liberties:

    Most of the questions, however, focus on how our data should be used. There’s been far less attention to a growing effort to change how our data is collected.

    For years, efforts to protect privacy have focused on giving people the ability to choose what data is collected about them. Now, industry—with the support of some leaders in government—wants to shift that focus. Businesses say that in our data-saturated world, giving consumers meaningful control over data collection is next to impossible. They argue that we should ramp down efforts to give individuals control over the initial collection of their data, and instead let industry collect as much personal information as possible.

    Privacy protections? They would come after the fact, through “use restrictions” that would prohibit certain uses of data that society deemed harmful. We used to try to protect people at each stage of data processing—collection, analysis, sharing. Now, it’s collect first and ask questions later.

    This isn’t a fringe argument. It was endorsed by the World Economic Forum of Davos as well as the president’s own Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which issued a report on the subject in May. […]

    Davos and the president’s council are basically saying that it’s OK to vacuum up data, so long as you prohibit certain harmful uses of it. The problem is that harmful uses of data are often recognized as such only long after the fact. Our society has been especially slow to condemn uses of data that hurt racial and ethnic minorities, the LGBT community, and other “undesirables.” […]

    There is a moral lag in the way we treat data. Far too often, today’s discrimination was yesterday’s national security or public health necessity. An approach that advocates ubiquitous data collection and protects privacy solely through post-collection use restrictions doesn’t account for that.

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