White House calls for more privacy laws

WASHINGTON — The White House is asking Congress to pass new privacy laws that would add more safeguards for Americans’ data and provide more protections for emails sought in the course of a law enforcement investigation.

The recommendations are among six offered by President Barack Obama’s counselor John Podesta in a report released Thursday. The report also calls for the Justice Department and other federal agencies to expand their ability to identify ways data accumulation can be used to discriminate against people.

Obama requested the review in January, when he called for changes to some of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs that amass large amounts of data belonging to Americans and foreigners. The technology that enabled the surveillance programs also enables other programs used in the government and the private sector, such as data on financial records, health care systems and social media. The White House separately has reviewed the NSA programs and proposed changes to rein in the massive collection of Americans’ phone records and emails.

At Obama’s request, Podesta and the president’s top economic and science advisers conducted a 90-day review of how the government and private sector use large sets of data. While the recommendations are not binding, they do track with many of the president’s previous calls for addressing privacy issues.

The other recommendations — including passing more privacy laws, doing more to protect student and consumer data, ensure data is not used for discriminatory purposes and give non-U.S. citizens more privacy protections — address the many angles of criticism levied at the Obama administration following the Snowden disclosures.

Thursday’s call for more privacy protections comes at a time when Americans are more sensitive than ever about how much of their information can be seen by the government. Last year’s disclosures of classified surveillance programs showed the government’s vast collection of Americans’ phone records and emails, which many considered invasions of privacy.

In a blog post Thursday, Podesta said that while big data is “saving lives” and “making the economy work better,” it also raises serious questions about privacy.

“No matter how quickly technology advances, it remains within our power to ensure that we both encourage innovation and protect our values through law, policy and the practices we encourage in the public and private sector,” Podesta wrote.

One of the recommendations is to strengthen privacy for emails, a move that could provide more protections in the course of a law enforcement investigation.

Under the current law, in many cases the government can access emails without getting a warrant from a judge. Many consider that 1986 law to be outdated.

The recommendation represents the first clear message from the Obama administration that it supports updating the electronic communications law. As technology advanced, Americans’ physical property received more protections than electronic property. Privacy advocates have long called for emails to be treated the same as physical mail. If law enforcement wants access to someone’s physical mail, a warrant based on probable cause must be issued by a judge. However, if law enforcement wants access to emails, in many cases they can be obtained without a judge’s sign-off.

“By recognizing that online and offline communications should be treated the same, the report lays the groundwork for keeping everyone’s emails, texts and photos private and secure,” Calabrese said.

In addition to calling for better privacy protections for emails, the White House is advocating for the passage of other privacy laws that have been under consideration but received little traction on Capitol Hill. Among those is the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, a bill Obama proposed more than two years ago.

Even after the Snowden revelations, there’s little indication that the climate for taking up privacy legislation has shifted on Capitol Hill in a midterm election year.

The White House is also renewing its call for national data-breach legislation, which could have more resonance after hackers lifted personal data from millions of shoppers at Target and Nieman Marcus in recent months. The legislation would cull the patchwork of state laws into a single federal requirement for how data breaches should be reported to consumers and law enforcement.

Podesta held meetings with business leaders and privacy advocates as he crafted his recommendations. One unexpected area of concern that emerged was how big data could be used to target consumers and lead to discriminatory practices. Civil rights leaders, for example, raised in discussions with the White House the issue of employers who use data to map where job applicants live and then rate them based on that, particularly in low-paying service jobs.