Civil and Human Rights Coalition Applauds White House Big Data Report Emphasis of Civil Rights Concerns

Categories: Press Releases

For Immediate Release
Contact: Shin Inouye, 202.869.0398,

WASHINGTON – Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, released the following statement in response to today’s report from the White House’s 90-day review of big data policies. The Leadership Conference recently partnered with 13 other civil and human rights and technology organizations to release a set of civil rights principles for the era of big data:

“Today’s report highlights the crucial importance of updating our civil rights, data, and privacy policies to unlock big data’s benefits and guard against its risks. While big data is revolutionizing commerce and government for the better, it is also supercharging the potential for discrimination in employment, credit, insurance, and law enforcement.

The analysis strikes a careful balance, highlighting both the risks and the benefits that big data make possible. With the right policies, big data could be helpful in the fight for equal protection under the law; without them, civil rights can be at risk. That’s why we joined with our colleagues in the women’s, Latino, Asian-American, and African-American communities to voice the needs of our constituents and share our priorities for reform.

Today’s report is a welcome step forward in acknowledging the need for rules of the road for the public and private institutions whose decisions can ultimately protect or deny civil and human rights. It provides important next steps for the administration, Congress, and regulators to ensure that technology is used to enhance equal opportunity – not undermine it.

The civil rights community stands ready to work with the White House, with Congress, and with policymakers and stakeholders to ensure that civil rights are protected in the era of big data.”

Below are key findings on the civil rights implications of big data:

“[T]his study is about more than the capabilities of big data technologies. It is also about how big data may challenge fundamental American values and existing legal frameworks. This report focuses on the federal government’s role in assuring that our values endure and our laws evolve as big data technologies change the landscape for consumers and citizens.” (p. 15)

” Some of the most profound challenges revealed during this review concern how big data analytics may lead to disparate inequitable treatment, particularly of disadvantaged groups, or create such an opaque decision-making environment that individual autonomy is lost in an impenetrable set of algorithms.” (p. 16)

“While these scores may be generated for marketing purposes, they can also in practice be used similarly to regulated credit scores in ways that influence an individuals’ opportunities to find housing, forecast their job security, or estimate their health, outside of the protections of the Fair Credit Reporting Act or Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Details on what types of data are included in these scores and the algorithms used for assigning attributes to an individual are held closely by companies and largely invisible to consumers. That means there is often no meaningful avenue for either identifying harms or holding any entity in the decision-making chain accountable.” (p. 52)

“It will . . . be important to examine how algorithmically-driven decisions might exacerbate existing socio-economic disparities beyond the pricing of goods and services, including in education and workforce settings.” (p. 53)

“An important conclusion of this study is that big data technologies can cause societal harms beyond damages to privacy, such as discrimination against individuals and groups. This discrimination can be the inadvertent outcome of the way big data technologies are structured and used. It can also be the result of intent to prey on vulnerable classes.” (p. 57)

“Just as neighborhoods can serve as a proxy for racial or ethnic identity, there are new worries that big data technologies could be used to “digitally redline” unwanted groups, either as customers, employees, tenants, or recipients of credit. A significant finding of this report is that big data could enable new forms of discrimination and predatory practices.” (p. 59)

“The same algorithmic and data mining technologies that enable discrimination could also help groups enforce their rights by identifying and empirically confirming instances of discrimination and characterizing the harms they caused. Civil rights groups can use the new and powerful tools of big data in service of equal treatment for the communities they represent. Whether big data will build greater equality for all Americans or exacerbate existing inequalities depends entirely on how its technologies are applied in the years to come, what kinds of protections are present in the law, and how the law is enforced.” (p. 59)

“[B]ig data can be used . . . in ways that perpetrate social harms or render outcomes that have inequitable impacts, even when discrimination is not intended. Small biases have the potential to become cumulative, affecting a wide range of outcomes for certain disadvantaged groups. Society must take steps to guard against these potential harms by ensuring power is appropriately balanced between individuals and institutions, whether between citizen and government, consumer and firm, or employee and business.” (p. 64-65)

“Expand Technical Expertise to Stop Discrimination. The federal government’s lead civil rights and consumer protection agencies should expand their technical expertise to be able to identify practices and outcomes facilitated by big data analytics that have a discriminatory impact on protected classes, and develop a plan for investigating and resolving violations of law.” (p. 66)

“To build public awareness, the federal government’s consumer protection and technology agencies should convene public workshops and issue reports over the next year on the potential for discriminatory practices in light of these new technologies; differential pricing practices; and the use of proxy scoring to replicate regulated scoring practices in credit, employment, education, housing, and health care” (p. 71)

“Law enforcement agencies should continue to examine how federal grants involving big data surveillance technologies can foster their responsible use, as well as the potential utility of establishing a national registry of big data pilots in state and local law enforcement in order to track, identify, and promote best practices. Federal government agencies with technology leaders and experts should also report progress in developing privacy-protective technologies over the next year to help advance the development of technical skills for the advancement of the federal privacy community” (p. 72)

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 200 national organizations to promote and protect the rights of all persons in the United States. The Leadership Conference works toward an America as good as its ideals. For more information on The Leadership Conference and its 200-plus member organizations, visit