White House in no mood to debate big data and privacy at MIT

The White House kicked off a 90-day review of big data and privacy with a conference at MIT.
The White House kicked off a 90-day review of big data and privacy with a conference at MIT.

The White House says it wants a spirited debate about the benefits and risks of large-scale data collection. But the government officials who showed up at MIT Monday to kick off a 90-day federal review of big data and privacy displayed little appetite for substantive conversation.

The kicker came during an afternoon panel discussion, when John DeLong, the National Security Agency’s director of compliance, should have been awarded an honorary degree in tongue biting. DeLong sat right next to Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, yet refused to engage when she made pointed comments, like this one: “Everything’s being done in secret. But for Edward Snowden, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”

DeLong would look down and away (perhaps there was an interesting piece of metatada on the floor of Wong Auditorium), waiting silently for another panelist to move the discussion away from his agency.

It wasn’t just him, either. Before DeLong’s group took the floor, US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker made a brief speech in which she barely touched on the subject of privacy, then exited quickly without fielding questions.

Someone seated near me, in one of those fake whispers that’s really meant to be heard by a lot of people, summed things up nicely: “No questions? Why have a real discussion, right?”

Snickers rippled a few rows in every direction.

Monday’s event was the start of a big data and privacy review President Obama outlined in January, in the same speech in which he announced new limits on NSA phone surveillance. The review, led by White House counselor John Podesta (who delivered bland remarks by phone from Washington), is not confined to intelligence gathering but is meant also to examine how private entities collect and use mass quantities of personal information, such as health records and Internet browsing habits.

On the latter subject, the conversation was robust. Experts from places like MIT, Harvard, Nielsen, and Koa Labs traded pros and cons, and proposed high-tech compromises that could allow people to contribute personal information to big data pools anonymously. If you’re into cryptography and want the details, you can watch the whole thing here.

Just don’t bother looking for deep thoughts from federal officials. You won’t find any.

Maybe they’ll start participating in their own review at NYU or Berkeley. Those are the other two stops on a tour where, so far, participants appear to be taking privacy seriously only when it comes to their own opinions.

Cal Borchers is a business reporter for the Boston Globe. Reach him at [email protected].
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