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A tin foil hat is a piece of headgear made from one or more sheets of aluminum foil or similar material. One may wear the hat in the belief that it shields the brain from electromagnetic fields, to prevent mind control and/or mind reading, or to limit the transmission of voices directly into the brain.

– Wikipedia

In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations and the continual assessment of government privacy acts and social networking data privacy terms, there’s been a healthy global discussion around the price of Big Data and the perils of analytics.

Without any clear evidence of misuse of data or any confirmation of unlawful information access on behalf of the government, civil liberties organizations have created a furor over speculation, fueling the discussion by creating a fear of the unknown.  But for those who subscribe to such paranoid or conspiracy theories, their tinfoil hats will quickly obscure all of the amazing insights, protections and societal benefits that stem from the exploitation of big data.

Exploitation.  I said it.  ‘Exploitation’ the word is not – in and of itself – a bad word.  My laptop’s Dictionary defines the primary definition of this verb as “to make use of and derive full benefit from”.  Every day, there are shining examples of big data being exploited in ways that benefit the entire world:

  • Genomic data analysis enables us to understand common characteristics of cancer and other illness, and is now enabling smarter treatment.
  • The world’s counter-terrorism network – while maybe guilty of bad marketing – continues to enable a safer society and stable world economy through the ever-vigilant pursuit of rouge operators, preventing more than 50 events in the past 10 years.  Think of the social, economic and political impact in a world where we would have seen 50 additional terror events over the last 10 years…
  • In this “platinum age” of television programming, we can thank big data for keeping all of our favorite shows off the chopping block.
  • Big Data is used by companies everywhere, not only to compete better (as this is otherwise a zero sum game for consumers), but also to optimize cost structures, develop products better and faster and deliver smarter to optimize customer value.  This Intel case study (where they’ve saved ‘several hundred million dollars) is one of the many, many examples of the corporate benefits of exploiting big data.

OK, so this is all the good stuff; now, on to the topic of un-moderated data capture and information analytics. Certainly, I am not condoning that organizations have free reign to take our personal data with abandon, but I am suggesting that our society – at large – has either knowingly or unknowingly already put its data into the hands of responsible corporations and governments who care for our information in ways that even we ourselves do not.  Consider Google as a use case:

So, where is all of this going?

Fear of the unknown is a very powerful emotion. It’s very easy today to lose sight of the benefits of big data and analytics as we succumb to the fear of what we “think” organizations are doing with our data.  These organizations can become a lightning rod of scrutiny as its easier to blame corporations than it is to look at our own data protection policies and look past the benefits the world gains from big data’s proper use.

In my opinion, the amazing part of the Snowden story actually came from a Washington Post poll, where citizens surveyed stated that they were more in favor of the government’s actions. People inherently understand that to make informed decisions, we need data, and to make the best decisions, we need a lot of data.

“You can’t connect dots you don’t have.”

Gus Hunt, CIA CTO

Structure: Data Conference – 2013

As a global society, we have an opportunity in front of us.

  • Let’s first be honest with ourselves about the advancements and protections we demand, and recognize that data can be used to enable them.
  • Second, take a step back and understand that in a global economy with globally interconnected governments, good corporate citizens and elected officials are working to protect our data while exploiting its societal value.
  • Third, let’s take this opportunity to turn the discussion to the often-hidden success stories that come from the “good” exploitation of big data and instead focus on moving the world forward by developing smarter big data tools and technologies, as well as superior data protection tools, so that we may truly build upon the insights that we are already gleaning from these massive amounts of information.

We still have so many more dots to connect. Technology has long been a source of some of the world’s most famous conspiracy theories.  Time and time again, technology advances have pierced through the tinfoil hat and society has reaped the rewards.  As Moore’s law enables us to process data from amounts that we cannot otherwise fathom, we will all be well-served to embrace our data-driven future and harness the power and responsibility around data to create a better tomorrow.

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