Why civil rights groups are warning against ‘big data’

Published February 28, 2014   |   
Brian Fung

The backlash against the government’s use of bulk phone records for intelligence purposes has been led mostly by technologists used to speaking the language of privacy. But a new push by civil rights organizations to challenge “big data” — both in the public and private sectors — is highlighting how the abuse of data can uniquely affect disadvantaged minorities.

More than a dozen groups are backing a set of principles targeting the widespread use of data in law enforcement, hiring and commerce. The list includes some of the country’s biggest civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza.

The document, obtained by The Washington Post, underscores what the signers feel is a threat to racial and religious minorities, vulnerable seniors and other groups who may be unfairly targeted due to the increasing collection of data that could allow for discrimination. The principles commit supporters to work toward ending “high-tech profiling,” the addition of built-in protections in computerized decision-making systems, putting pressure on commercial entities for greater data disclosures and “protect[ing] people from inaccurate data,” among other steps.

“Big data has supercharged the potential for discrimination by corporations and the government in ways that victims don’t even see,” said Wade Henderson, chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “This threatens to undermine the core civil rights protections guaranteed by the law in ways that were unimaginable even in the most recent past.”

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