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Edith Ramirez’s ‘Big Data’ Speech: Privacy Concerns Prompt Precautionary Principle Thinking

This is a really good article - and should be read in full - especially by those who are involved in the collection or exploitation (leveraging) of personal and private information ...

by ADAM THIERER on AUGUST 29, 2013

empty swimming pool

"Much of my recent research and writing has been focused on the contrast between “permissionless innovation” (the notion that innovation should generally be allowed by default) versus its antithesis, the “precautionary principle” (the idea that new innovations should be discouraged or even disallowed until their developers can prove that they won’t cause any harms)."

If public policy is guided at every turn by the precautionary mindset then innovation becomes impossible because of fear of the unknown

Wisdom is born of experience, including experiences involving risk and the possibility of mistakes and accidents.

Not every wise ethical principle, social norm, or industry best practice automatically makes for wise public policy.

The best solutions to complex social problems are organic and “bottom-up” in nature.

For the preceding reasons, when it comes to information technology policy, “permissionless innovation” should, as a general rule, trump “precautionary principle” thinking

FTC Chairwoman Ramirez recently delivered a speech at the annual Technology Policy Institute Aspen Forum on the topic of “The Privacy Challenges of Big Data: A View from the Lifeguard’s Chair.” Ramirez made several provocative assertions and demands in the speech, but here’s the one “commandment” I really want to focus on. Claiming that “One risk is that the lure of ‘big data’ leads to the indiscriminate collection of personal information,” Chairwoman Ramirez went on to argue:

"The indiscriminate collection of data violates the First Commandment of data hygiene: Thou shall not collect and hold onto personal information unnecessary to an identified purpose. Keeping data on the offchance that it might prove useful is not consistent with privacy best practices. And remember, not all data is created equally. Just as there is low quality iron ore and coal, there is low quality, unreliable data. And old data is of little value. (emphasis added)"

And later in the speech she goes on to argue that “Information that is not collected in the first place can’t be misused” and then suggests a parade of horribles that will befall if such data collection is allowed at all.

Let’s apply that lesson to Chairwoman Ramirez’s speech. When she argues that “Information that is not collected in the first place can’t be misused,” there is absolutely no doubt that her statement is true. But it is equally true that information that is not collected at all is information that might have been used to provide us with the next “killer app” or the great gadget or digital service that we cannot currently contemplate but that some innovative entrepreneur out there might be looking to develop.

Likewise, claiming that “old data is of little value” and issuing the commandment that “Thou shall not collect and hold onto personal information unnecessary to an identified purpose” reveals a rather stunning arrogance about the possibility of serendipitous data discovery: Either Chairwoman Ramirez doesn’t think it can happen or she doesn’t care if it does. But the reality is that the cornucopia of innovation information options and opportunities we have at our disposal today was driven in large part by data collection, including personal data collection. And often those innovations were not part of some initial grand design; instead they came about through the discovery of new and interesting things that could be done with data after the fact.

ConclusionSo, in sum, the key question going forward is: Are we going teach people how to swim, or are we going to drain the information oceans based on the fear that people could be harmed by the very existence of some deep data waters?

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