Does Big Data Equal Big Brother?

on October 14, 2014

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.