American schizophrenia on data protection in the Open Government Partnership


By Nathaniel Heller — September 25, 2014.

The United States yesterday announced four significant new commitments as part of its evolving Open Government Partnership National Action Plan (NAP). The Obama administration should be applauded for continuing to implement a serious, iterative approach to strengthening its NAP after having stepped down from its founding chair position. Kudos, White House open government team.

What’s not in the new Action Plan, unfortunately, is any nod to an awareness that continued mass digital surveillance is an affront to the broader open government agenda. I’ve written extensively about this in the past, and Global Integrity even produced a short video about it in the run-up to last year’s OGP summit in London. At that summit, Indian activist Aruna Roy pressed US Secretary of State John Kerry on the issue in front of a crowd of more than a thousand people, and hundreds of open government organizations and individuals have publicly called for greater attention to digital surveillance issues in the OGP context.

What we get in the most recent US National Action Plan is not only cricket-cricket, but also what I can only describe as a schizophrenic focus on data protection concerns in the context of Big Data. I say schizophrenic because when you are the world’s leader in secretly and at times illegally vacuuming in All the Data, can you be genuinely concerned about commercial data providers violating someone’s privacy? I have a hard time squaring that circle.

I thought it’d be interesting to edit the new US OGP commitment in question by making the hidden subtext more explicit. Below is the original text with my tongue-in-cheek subtext added in italics. Feel free to play at home too and post your edits to this blog’s comments or Twitter (@GlobalIntegrity)!

4. Use Big Data to Support Greater Openness and Accountability

President Obama has recognized the growing importance of “big data” technologies for our economy and the advancement of public good in areas such as education, energy conservation, and healthcare; it’s also REALLY helpful for listening to any mobile phone whenever we want. The Administration is taking action to ensure responsible uses of big data to promote greater openness and accountability across a range of areas and sectors, just not national security or the intelligence arenas, because we clearly have little influence over those parts of the interagency. As part of the work it is doing in this area, the Administration has committed to:

  • Enhance sharing of best practices on data privacy for state and local law enforcement. Federal agencies with expertise in law enforcement, privacy, and data practices will seek to enhance collaboration and information sharing about privacy best practices among state and local law enforcement agencies receiving Federal grants. Federal agencies that harvest massive amounts of private data from US citizens are exempt from this commitment, however.
  • Ensure privacy protection for big data analyses in health. Big data introduces new opportunities to advance medicine and science, improve health care, and support better public health. To ensure that individual privacy is protected while capitalizing on new technologies and data, the Administration, led by the Department of Health and Human Services, will: (1) consult with stakeholders to assess how Federal laws and regulations can best accommodate big data analyses that promise to advance medical science and reduce health care costs; and (2) develop recommendations for ways to promote and facilitate research through access to data while safeguarding patient privacy and autonomy.
  • Expand technical expertise in government to stop discrimination. U.S. Government departments and agencies will work to expand their technical expertise to identify outcomes facilitated by big data analytics that may have a discriminatory impact on protected classes. U.S. Government departments and agencies that violate the civil liberties of all American citizens equally are exempt from this provision.


Photo Credit: Daniel Zimmermann (Creative Commons attribution 2.0 Generic.)

Nathaniel Heller

Nathaniel is a founder of Global Integrity and previously served as Executive Director

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