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Obama's 'Big Data' privacy plans get lift from lawmakers

Posted On: Feb. 6, 2015 12:00 AM CST

(Reuters) — The White House is working with a Republican congressman on the U.S. House of Representatives' leadership team and Democrats in both the House and Senate on a bill to protect data collected from students through educational apps.

The legislation, aimed at ensuring kids' data is used only for educational and legitimate research purposes, is the first of President Barack Obama's “Big Data” privacy plans to gain traction in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Mr. Obama has pushed to do more to protect privacy in an age when consumers leave a trail of digital footprints through smartphones, other personal devices and social media, information that can be collected, analyzed and sold.

It is one element of his broad strategy to beef up the nation's cyber laws, an issue that has gained momentum after high-profile cyber thefts of data from companies such as Target Corp and Home Depot Inc.

Late on Wednesday, No. 2 U.S. health insurer Anthem Inc. said hackers stole personal information on up to 80 million people. The FBI is investigating.

Mr. Obama's cybersecurity adviser, Michael Daniel, said the latest intrusion was “disturbing” because of its size. He said the hack is an example of the threat that is prompting the White House push forward on working on cyber legislation with Congress.

“I am trying to make the most of the phrase, 'Never let a good crisis go to waste,' ” Mr. Daniel said at an online seminar organized by Bloomberg Government.

On student data, the White House is working with Representative Luke Messer of Indiana, chairman of the House's Republican Policy Committee, and Democratic Representative Jared Polis of Colorado, an Internet entrepreneur who founded a network of charter schools. The two plan to unveil the legislation in the next couple of weeks.

“Protecting America's children from Big Data shouldn't be a partisan issue,” Rep. Messer said in a statement.

Added Rep. Polis: “Legislation is the best way to address parental concerns, while encouraging new developments in individualized learning.”

The White House has also organized a cyber summit at Stanford University on Feb. 13 to bring together tech, retail and banking chief executives; law enforcement officials and consumer advocates and to build support around its cyber efforts.

Later this month, the administration will release draft legislation aimed at giving consumers a say in how their online data is harvested and sold by companies.

The White House is also considering using its authority over federal contracting rules to highlight best practices in data collection and use, Mr. Daniel said.

Big data is an umbrella term for massive collections of data that cannot be analyzed using traditional data processing technology. Technology firms have introduced new products in the past few years to help analyze this information to uncover trends for use in marketing, uncovering fraud and other applications.

A year ago, Mr. Obama assigned another senior adviser, John Podesta, to focus on consumer data privacy laws after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified information about government use of Big Data analytics for surveillance.

One proposal was for formal rules for protecting data collected in classrooms through software used for testing and personalized learning, a growing market valued at $7.9 billion last year by the Software and Information Industry Association.

“Particularly in a world where data collection is increasingly ubiquitous, and data retention is functionally permanent, it was very important to get that policy right with respect to K-12 students,” Mr. Podesta said in an interview.

A 2013 study by Fordham Law School's Center on Law and Information Policy found many schools had inadequate protections.

But there have not been any high-profile cases of student data breaches, said Jules Polonetsky, executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank that works on data issues.

“It's been certainly more a fear of what could happen than any actual significant issues,” Mr. Polenetsky said in an interview.

Privacy concerns last year shuttered plans for a national database of student data by a nonprofit initiative called inBloom Inc. funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

A patchwork of state laws has since sprung up.

More than 100 companies, including Microsoft, Google, and News Corp. subsidiary Amplify, have signed a voluntary pledge — which was championed by Reps. Messer and Polis — to prevent misuse of student data.

“There's wide consensus that having a broad set of standards is essential,” Mr. Polonetsky said.