White House Council Uses 'Orwellian' Business Trip As A Warning For Big Data's Future

Like any sector, the travel business is undergoing an accelerating transformation spurred by expanded access to and analysis of ever-growing heaps of data. Seeking to guide regulators and lawmakers, a White House-commissioned report released Wednesday examined the promise and pitfalls of "big data and privacy," while offering a few warnings of particular interest to the travel sector.

"Big data holds tremendous potential to benefit society and contribute to economic growth," according to the report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, "yet it also presents new challenges related to individual privacy."

On the White House's radar is concern that data access and analysis can lead to price discrimination based on personal consumer attributes. That concern echoes those expressed by groups that feared the potential uses of the International Air Transport Association's New Distribution Capability.

"Differential pricing (offering different prices to different customers for essentially the same goods) has become familiar in domains such as airline tickets and college costs," according to the report. "Big data may increase the power and prevalence of this practice and may also decrease even further its transparency."

According to the report's authors, "Notions of privacy change generationally. One sees today marked differences between the younger generation of 'digital natives' and their parents or grandparents. In turn, the children of today's digital natives will likely have still different attitudes about the flow of their personal information."

The report added that "future generations may see little threat in scenarios that individuals today would find threatening, if not Orwellian."

In examining "tradeoffs among privacy, security and convenience," the report uses a hypothetical, future business trip by a fictitious traveler to illustrate concerns on data use__both by commercial and governmental entities:

"Taylor Rodriguez prepares for a short business trip. She packed a bag the night before and put it outside the front door of her home for pickup. No worries that it will be stolen: The camera on the streetlight was watching it; and, in any case, almost every item in it has a tiny RFID tag.

"Any would-be thief would be tracked and arrested within minutes. Nor is there any need to give explicit instructions to the delivery company, because the cloud knows Taylor's itinerary and plans; the bag is picked up overnight and will be in Taylor's destination hotel room by the time of her arrival.

"Taylor finishes breakfast and steps out the front door. Knowing the schedule, the cloud has provided a self-driving car, waiting at the curb. At the airport, Taylor walks directly to the gate__no need to go through any security. Nor are there any formalities at the gate: A 20-minute 'open door' interval is provided for passengers to stroll onto the plane and take their seats (which each sees individually highlighted in his or her wearable optical device). There are no boarding passes and no organized lines. Why bother, when Taylor's identity (as for everyone else who enters the airport) has been tracked and is known absolutely? When her known information emanations (phone, RFID tags in clothes, facial recognition, gait, emotional state) are known to the cloud, vetted and essentially unforgeable? When, in the unlikely event that Taylor has become deranged and dangerous, many detectable signs would already have been tracked, detected, and acted on?

"Indeed, everything that Taylor carries has been screened far more effectively than any rushed airport search today. Friendly cameras in every LED lighting fixture in Taylor's house have watched her dress and pack, as they do every day. Normally this data would be used only by Taylor's personal digital assistants, perhaps to offer reminders or fashion advice. As a condition of using the airport transit system, however, Taylor has authorized the use of the data for ensuring airport security and public safety.

"Taylor's world seems creepy to us. Taylor has accepted a different balance among the public goods of convenience, privacy and security than would most people today. Taylor acts in the unconscious belief (whether justified or not, depending on the nature and effectiveness of policies in force) that the cloud and its robotic servants are trustworthy in matters of personal privacy. In such a world, major improvements in the convenience and security of everyday life become possible."

The report lays out recommendations on steps the federal government could take regarding big data. Among those, it suggests that "policy attention should focus more on the actual uses of big data and less on its collection and analysis," and that government regulation "should not embed particular technological solutions, but rather should be stated in terms of intended outcomes."

Meanwhile, the report recommends that "the United States should take the lead both in the international arena and at home by adopting policies that stimulate the use of practical privacy-protecting technologies that exist today."

The full report can be accessed here.