Does Big Data Equal Big Brother?

One of the hottest topics in the world of enterprise IT for the last several years has been big data. The idea behind it is relatively straightforward: in our increasingly connected world, it’s possible to collect a lot of information on everything from how people use different types of applications, to how athletes perform on the field, to what web sites we all visit and what types of things we search for and/or purchase.

All of this information is essentially just a bunch of random data bits that are increasingly being stored on the seemingly endless supply of storage housed in increasingly more powerful data centers that companies and other institutions are putting up all over the world. By itself, of course, this data is meaningless, but through the use of analytics-based software, the idea is that you can mine these big data stores for truly useful information.

In reality, many organizations are finding that it’s pretty difficult to make that leap from data to information, but there are also many companies who are doing it quite successfully. We’ve all undoubtedly seen how quickly an innocent search on say, a new suit, translates into a barrage of men’s wear ads on nearly every site you visit.

But targeted advertising isn’t where these interactions end. Instead, some companies are compiling entire profiles on individuals that pull together everything from marital status, political perspective, income, health, location and much more into a somewhat frightening, Orwellian-like dossier. In fact, a front page story in yesterday’s WSJ is about companies who are building entire businesses around this collection of data as well as how companies in other industries are trying to place a value on this information.

Depending on your age, your technology comfort level, political viewpoint and many other factors, your view on this subject may range from completely OK to completely not OK with these developments, but regardless, there’s no denying that they represent an unprecedented degree of insight into our personal lives.[pullquote]While I don’t believe all companies who are collecting big data are planning to use it for big brother-like purposes, I do think that turning a blind eye to private industry-driven personal data collection and keeping governmental organizations from playing some kind of role in this area is a mistake.”[/pullquote]

In my mind, that raises the inevitable question: Is this something that needs to be looked at, considered and potentially even legislated by governmental organizations? In some parts of the world, notably European countries such as Germany, it already has. But here in the US, there’s been little “official” action on the issue.

The reasons are probably fairly obvious: Do we want government impeding with private enterprise? Given the Edward Snowden revelations, there are understandably big concerns about the US government regulating the tracking of individuals, given how much they’ve apparently already been doing.

But despite all these concerns—and to be clear, I think many of them are very legitimate—is it really fair to assume that private industry is going to be any more protective of our personal data? I would argue that both common sense and business history would suggest not. Basic Adam Smith-inspired capitalism tells us that companies’ fundamental interest is making money and they often use whatever approaches they believe are acceptable in order to achieve that end.

Do I believe all companies who are collecting big data are planning to use it for big brother-like purposes? Of course not, but do I think that turning a blind eye to all the private industry-driven personal data collection and keeping governmental organizations from playing some kind of role in this area is a mistake? Absolutely. Given all the security breaches we’ve seen from private companies, there clearly needs to be outside focus placed on these issues.

No one wants to live through true Big Brother-like scenarios, but l believe it is naïve to think those kind of scenarios could only happen through a governmental organization. Given the level of information many tech-focused big data firms already have, an unregulated private industry could prove to be an even bigger threat.

While many may find the idea of regulating private industry to be an unpalatable concept, I believe that the time has come to start an active dialogue on the subject of how our personal data is collected, stored and used.

Published by

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

20 thoughts on “Does Big Data Equal Big Brother?”

  1. I agree.

    The purpose of big data in business is to make more money, either by selling more or by selling things at a higher price. So to the extent that big data results in targeted offers of useful stuff at good prices, I might even be a beneficiary.

    The everyday reality is of course different: 1) I get endless offers of useless stuff, 2) the data is used to target me with stuff at inflated prices, hoping to trigger an impulse-buy, 3) I get creepy ads based on past searches, 4) I’m one data breach away from being targeted by criminals.

    There is a reason why Germans are so sentive about data collection; they have had firsthand experience with unaccountable agencies targeting citizens in the nazi and communist eras (all under the guise of dealing with unwanted elements).

    So big data is not an unavoidable part of every day life that is here to help consumers and citizens, it is here to help other people target you for their purposes.

  2. If there is One thing that the Snowdon revelation tell me is that the majority of people are either well aware of the amount of the Data that a lot of company store on them and are ok with it in exchange for Free and good services or their simply do not care as much as we geeks think they do.

    1. Good points, but I also think many people don’t really realize the extent of the information that’s being collected. Nobody reads Ts and Cs and I think most people still assume that nothing really that bad can come from it. I think there needs to be a lot more education about how much is being collected and that’s going to take time.

      1. I agree that the general public probably didn’t realize what was being collected about them. However, the recent trend in retargeting ads is getting bolder. Even the less tech savvy will soon realize that Google is tracking the sites that you visited yesterday.

        It will be interesting to see what will happen then.

        And no, I don’t think people forgive you because you are free.

        1. I’ve said this before, but it’s relevant here as well. Since you basically cannot use the internet without Google getting paid, search should be regulated as a public utility.

          1. i partially agree primary in country such in Europe where they have more than 90% pour cent of Market share

          2. It’s not just market share. I would make Bing play under the same rules. This is about protecting privacy. A unilateral EULA (that most don’t read) is not the way to handle this. Even in contract law, contracts get invalidated if there was no or poor representation on one side.

          3. i agree, instead of trying to prevent company from collecting our Data that are necessary to provide good services we should instead regular them to make them responsible for any liability or breach of security, also opt out should be a easy to use feature

      2. that may be true for company such as Google, but even with all media buzz about the extent to which the government was spying on us didn’t scare us hence i do not believe that it is simply a matter of the public not been aware the full extent of this practice.

        even myself i do not care that much about Google so long as they provided me with good services that are Free

  3. “is it really fair to assume that private industry is going to be any more protective of our personal data?”

    The more appropriate question is “how to best regulate private industry to be protective of our personal data”. These are Fourth Amendment issues, regulation is necessary because upholding the Fourth Amendment is the government’s job. Elected officials, answerable to the people, need to be in charge, and not some board answerable to the stockholders.

    That is not to say that data collection and use should be made illegal, rather it’s enforcement within the bounds of the Constitution.

    Bad enough if the NSA spies on citizenry, without a warrant, even worse when companies do it. Who are they accountable to?

    1. Exactly my point. There’s been a great deal of concern raised about governmental tracking, but the reality is that private industry tracking is much more pervasive and, at the moment, completely unregulated. A lot more likely to problems result from private industry-driven issues than governmental ones.

  4. For me the issue is about the lack of informed consent. For example, I may choose to have the usage data about how I use my iPhone tracked and share with Apple (I do not). I can opt-in or out. However, I have very little choice, nor am I informed about how I am tracked around the Internet when the tracking software (e.g. Google Analytics) is embedded in almost every web site I visit and I opt-out requests are ignored (Google services ignore do not track request).

  5. To start at the most basic level, I object to companies having my payment info and ID details: they’ve been proven time and again to be incapable of securing that high-value info, leading to billions in theft and fraud, at very little cost to them. The government, not the private sector, is handling my real-life ID needs; and retail banks are heavily regulated. One or the other is probably required in the virtual world too, maybe not an enforced centralized SSO, but at least penalties for negligent handling of confidential data.
    As for the rest of “my” data, not sure…

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