On September 15, 2014, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) hosted a workshop entitled “Big Data: A Tool for Inclusion or Exclusion?” The workshop brought together a variety of speakers to discuss what steps, if any, need to be taken to promote the benefits that flow from the use of data analytics while protecting against the potential for this information to serve as a basis for discriminatory decisions.

Both Chairwoman Edith Ramirez and Commissioner Julie Brill spoke at the workshop. In addition to touting the benefits of big data and warning of its potential risks, Chairwoman Ramirez discussed the objectives for the FTC in this area, including enforcing existing laws and working with businesses to address alleged biases in predictive algorithms. Commissioner Brill called for privacy and fairness protections in big data analytics, emphasizing the importance of transparency and accountability in maintaining consumer trust. She noted that regulatory attention would focus specifically on “alternative scoring practices,” activities of “data brokers,” companies’ uses of customer data, and whether these practices could exacerbate existing socioeconomic disparities.

The panelists discussed the potential for big data analytics to bring low-income and underserved populations into the credit and employment markets. Some panelists cautioned that entities using big data analytics should consider the potential for discrimination when identifying data sources and drawing conclusions from the data they collect. Other panelists identified a number of examples in which organizations were able to include more people from underserved populations by  identifying alternative factors to inform their decision through the use of big data. Specifically, some panelists discussed the  use of data analytics to identify low-income individuals who lack  a credit score because they do not frequently use credit  products but nonetheless present a low risk of default.

Jessica Rich, the Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, concluded the workshop with an overview of the issues discussed during the workshop and the potential benefits and harms that could flow from the use of big data. She urged industry to use big data for positive benefits and to develop ways to avoid the harmful uses of big data. She also stated that the FTC will continue to investigate uses of big data that violate current laws and regulations.