Dec 31, 2014

Big Data, not Big Brother: The Importance of Privacy and Security

By Wassay Mohammad Ali

Using search data, Google can now predict the next outbreak of bird flu earlier than CDC. Decision analysis websites are forecasting the price of millions of consumer goods and services with substantial accuracy. SaaS companies like Netflix are able to customize the user experience by suggesting new movies to watch based on individualized analytics. Travel companies like Uber are making traditional cab services obsolete by allowing users to summon a car, observe and pay fares, and map arrival in real time all from their mobile devices.

And this is only the beginning.

We at Excelacom predict that Big Data will grow exponentially by 2020, and that a large percentage of future data will live or pass through The Cloud. This data explosion has already started to revolutionize the way consumers and businesses interact with one another and the world around them.

Historically, the ability to collect data on a large scale was limited to certain power institutions (primarily the church and the state). In the current age, the availability of data and ability to collect and analyze it is has spread beyond societal institutions to anyone with enough hard drives to store it. This challenges the historical construct of the institutions and mandates a change in mindset.

However, these new technological advancements come with a price: dwindling restrictions of consumer privacy, and the vulnerability of security threats for businesses.Businesses store and analyze consumer searches, purchases, credit card information, and even posts on social media to better target their market audiences and develop new products and services.This sensitive information has been hacked a number of times recently, including in universities, retail businesses, and in the entertainment industry.

Establishing consumer trust and ensuring privacy in the age of Big Data is a considerable challenge. The issue's many facets include:

1. Appropriate policy frameworks

2. New data ecosystems and institutions within the data value chain

3. Viable business models

4. Organizational accountability

5. Enabling individuals and groups to gain control over what information they share and how it is transferred.

There are a few fundamental considerations that come into play for an individual or a group to trust an institution with its information. These include the institution's intention and ability to use the information in the best interest of the subject and the environment, which may impact the individual's capacity to trust.

The right to privacy has evolved from the basic right to life and property to meet the needs of society. This evolution has been triggered by the changes in social, political and economic realms – often fueled by technology.

Ira Rubinstein, professor at the NYU School of Law, argues convincingly that the existing policy framework is not suitable for these emerging business models. As businesses collect more data and find novel ways of using it, they tend to control data with their own interest in mind. Based on the core principles of right to privacy and the right to be 'left alone', the control needs to shift towards the individuals.

However, individuals are not equipped to exercise this control and need expert help. It would require intermediaries with the right toolset, knowledge and experience to help individuals and groups in terms of managing their data and present a consolidated front to the vendors seeking this data.

Furthermore, businesses that want long-term success must realize that Big Data expansion is not "Big Brother" expansion; they must be able to ensure that their consumer base understands how personal information is used and protected."How you gather, manage and use information will determine whether you win or lose," said Bill Gates in a book published more than a decade ago.

We are only beginning to wrestle with the societal implications of this vision coming true. In a world where a business' success is dependent on real time analysis of consumer behavior, and where a mobile phone can now be used in place of a credit card, privacy and security against data breaches are becoming more crucial in the years to come.

Consumers that want goods and services tailored to their specific needs will need to feel secure in providing companies' their private information, and companies will have to effectively use that information without exploiting and victimizing their consumer base. When this trust and protection is met, Big Data won't only change the way we conduct business; it will change the way we operate across the globe.

Big Data is a relatively recent and increasingly crucial area defined by datasets that exceed the processing capacity of conventional database systems. Big Data is primarily driven by the fact that world around us is being progressively “data-fied,” with the ability to capture and store data increasing at an exponential rate. If alternative methods to process the datasets are implemented, advantageous information can be realized from these vast quantities of data.


Bill Gates (2000) 'Business@ The Speed Of Thought' Warner Books

Rubenstein I. S. (2012) 'Big data: The end of privacy or a new beginning' Public law & legal theory research paper series, New York University School of Law

Mayer-Schonberger V. and Cukier K. (2013) 'Big Data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work and think' London: John Murray

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Mohammad Ali

Wassay Mohammad Ali is Vice President Operations for EMEA and Asia at Excelacom. He is involved in technology strategy and transformation initiatives, as well as business development in EMEA and Asia regions.

More about Wassay

Innovation meets performance.