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Sept. 22, 2019, 9:35 a.m. EDT

Obama weighs in on Big Data, privacy in Silicon Valley fireside chat

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By Jon Swartz


Bloomberg News/Landov
Former U.S. President Barack Obama

The slippery slope of data has never been more crucial, former President Barack Obama warned in a far-ranging fireside chat at a tech conference in San Francisco on Wednesday.

“We have such an information glut now. So much of it is opinion wrapped up as fact, or selective facts to evoke emotions,” said Obama, who was interviewed by Splunk Inc. /zigman2/quotes/203060494/composite SPLK -1.99%  CEO Doug Merritt for about an hour.

With a digital fire hose of data, compounded by decisions that require rapid-fire responses from the White House, any person or organization needs a diversity of viewpoints as well as “a process you have confidence in” that properly sifts and sorts data, he said.

“What I would advise is to not watch TV or read social media,” Obama said in a not-too-subtle dig at President Donald Trump, which prompted laughter and applause.

“We were some of the earliest adapters” of new technological tools and social media during 2008 campaign, Obama said. “We did a lot of data analysis on deploying volunteers, turning out the vote. I benefited from an entire war room of folks who developed high-level skills from Silicon Valley. We understood the benefit of Big Data, good data. So we thought, how do we infuse that into the federal government?”

“We had a lot of discussion about what health data sets were appropriate to share without violating people’s privacy,” he said. “It is the least efficient system we have but accounts for one-sixth of the economy.”

Big data, he added, could help minimize waste in the health-care industry, as well as improve everyday headaches like gridlock traffic in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Merritt submitted 20 questions to Obama’s team before the company’s event on data management, though none of them were politically tinged at Obama’s request.

But the elephant in the room -- in this case, San Francisco’s 500-seat August Hall -- was the inevitable showdown between the federal government and four of tech’s biggest players over how they collect, handle, and monetize personal information. Last week, the House Judiciary Committee demanded email and other documentation from the CEOs of Amazon.com Inc. /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN -1.68% , Apple Inc. /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL +0.48% , Alphabet Inc.’s /zigman2/quotes/202490156/composite GOOGL -0.67%   /zigman2/quotes/205453964/composite GOOG -0.60%  Google, and Facebook Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB -2.38% .

Obama did not comment directly on the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission’s investigations into those companies, but he touched on the importance of what he calls “good data.”

Technology can enhance and hinder personal relationships. “That’s what you in Silicon Valley have to be concerned about,” he said. “Some poll suggested 20% of millennials said they had no friends. How we manage that for our own mental health and democracy is so important.”

Social media, in essence, has helped create bubbles of people sharing like-minded opinions.

The tone wasn’t entirely somber about the dangers of data, decision making, and culture. The former president weighed in on the upcoming NBA season. “I love the (Golden State) Warriors. I know Steph (Curry),” he said. “That is a great example of a place that built a great culture. Don’t worry about how they’ll do (this season). They had a great run.”

The 44th president’s appearance kicked off a busy week for his family in Silicon Valley, where they have cultivated a strong following among tech executives, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama is scheduled to speak off-the-record in appearances next week at Dropbox Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205896836/composite DBX -2.77% and Microsoft Corp.’s /zigman2/quotes/207732364/composite MSFT -1.63%  LinkedIn, both in San Francisco. She’s also set to appear at AT&T Inc.’s /zigman2/quotes/203165245/composite T +1.75%   Business Summit in Dallas in November.

“I didn’t know that,” a clearly bemused Barack Obama said when informed his wife would be in town next week.

Underscoring the growing influence of technology as an economic, cultural, and fundraising tool, President Trump on Tuesday briefly ducked into the Portola Valley, Calif., home of former Sun Microsystems Inc. CEO Scott McNealy to raise $3 million in a fundraiser luncheon.

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Jon Swartz is a senior reporter for MarketWatch in San Francisco, covering many of the biggest players in tech, including Netflix, Facebook and Google. Jon has covered technology for more than 20 years, and previously worked for Barron's and USA Today. Follow him on Twitter @jswartz.

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