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Privacy has been a concern in the United States since the very beginning

Shortly after the American Revolution, the new nation’s political leaders sought to bind the former British colonies into a union by getting to adopt the Constitution. But the states pushed back. They had just fought a war of liberation against one nation, and they were in no hurry to swear allegiance to another — not without some serious guarantees.

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The Constitution provides privacy guarantees that made sense in the days before computers.

So the framers of the Constitution wrote the Bill of Rights, 10 amendments that explicitly limited the new government’s power to intrude upon the states and their citizens. The states would not join the union until specific rights were guaranteed. Among these were a collection of rights relating to privacy. The Fourth Amendment helps to ensure that citizens shall be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,” protected from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Although the word “privacy” does not explicitly appear in the Constitution, the Supreme Court has found an implicit right to privacy is inherent in the Fourth Amendment and elsewhere.


New Challenges

But the framers of the Constitution did not anticipate that American would one day entrust their voices, documents, video images, and digital data to a vast web of interconnected computer networks. It did not suspect that data would one day be compiled in electronic formats that could be stored cheaply and indefinitely, searched at lightning speed, and combined with other seemingly innocuous data to provide surprisingly detailed information about American citizens. When it comes to electronic privacy rights, the federal government and the states have been making it up as they go along.

And the Constitution protects citizens only from the government’s prying eyes. Websites, Internet service providers, mobile-phone companies, banks, credit agencies, and other entities are collecting unprecedented amounts of information about all Americans. In many cases, little or no legislation protects consumer privacy from these activities.

The White House Initiative

The federal government is now reviewing legislation and policies regarding data and privacy. President Obama has instructed his staff to evaluate how new technologies are affecting people’s lives at home and at work, how telecommunications and the Internet are changing the way peoples, companies, and the government work together.

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The White House is gathering input from a wide variety of source for its comprehensive privacy and big-data policy review.

President Barak Obama explicitly invited technologists and government experts to give testimony to the White House. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and Google chairman Eric Schmidt are among the technology experts who have given the government testimony about big data and privacy in the digital age. White House attorney John Podesta says, “We have heard from industry leaders and technologists, civil society organizations and international regulators, academic researchers and privacy and civil liberty advocates about how big data is changing our society and economy.”

How You Can Make a Difference

The government has heard from industry and from a wide range of experts. And now it wants to hear from you.

As a first step, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has release a formal request for information seeking input from members of the public. But the White House wants to get even more input, from as many people as possible, so it has set up a streamlined way for citizens to give feedback and guidance to government policy-makers.

The government has established a website that allows citizens to share their views on big data and privacy. “Who do you trust with your data?” the White House asks. “What data-collection technologies give you pause? How are data and new technologies transforming your day-to-day life?”

News events in recent months have focused public attention on the issue of privacy. We have learned that government agencies, believing themselves to be working within the law, had collected unprecedented amounts of data regarding the communications and activities of millions of Americans. Some of these data-collection activities may be appropriate. Some may be vital. But all are under review as the President’s legal team studies the issues and collects input.

The government’s big data privacy review ends soon. If you have opinions on this issue, it’s easy to share them. Visit WhiteHouse.gov/Big-Data and make your voice heard.

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