IT used to be a relatively benign and controversy-free field, but recent events have technologies like Big Data hitting front-page news around the world. Recently, a government contractor revealed that one of the US intelligence organizations, the NSA, was capturing metadata of every phone call that transited US-based switching networks, creating a firestorm of controversy. Big Data suddenly became a household phrase as the technology was repeatedly cited as making this level of data capture and analysis possible.
Opponents of the program cited privacy concerns; if the US government could track the source, destination, and duration of every phone call, as well as the originating device and cell tower, it amounted to reporting to the government where you went, to whom you were talking, and the frequency of conversations with certain individuals. Despite assurances that the content of calls was not monitored, the data gathered were arguably intrusive and in violation of US privacy protections.
Interestingly, proponents of the program used arguments that would be familiar to anyone who has observed the PR response of a private company run through the press wringer for capturing intrusive data on its customers. Government representatives from the President down argued that this program had been disclosed, much like the fine print in a 10,000-line "Terms and Conditions" statement that users blindly agree to in order to use the service. Advocates of the NSA program also cited its benefits in a fashion that would make a social media company's PR spin master proud: human lives were saved (although, unfortunately, no one can provide the "top secret" details).
Like many a tool, just because a powerful capability exists doesn't mean it should be used everywhere and with complete impunity. As companies deploy Big Data, it's easy to capture every iota of data available and rest easy, assuming that the lawyers have covered all the bases in their mercurial Ts and Cs, and that users are knowingly surrendering all their personal information in order to use the fantastic service you've provided.
In theory, government is significantly more transparent than most private companies, with elected officials protecting the interests of constituents and "customers" having a direct ability to change policy and ultimately throw "management" out the door at election time. The visceral reaction to the NSA Big Data program demonstrates the peril of capturing and aggregating sensitive information in relative secret, even if the program has been legally "disclosed."
While your company may not be subjected to the global scrutiny befalling the NSA and US intelligence gathering apparatus, the "Big Snooping" capabilities engendered by Big Data must be used in a clearly delineated and responsible manner. An increasingly savvy public is expecting to know how their behaviors and data are being monitored, measured, and sold. Disclosing this information and how it benefits customers can be a competitive differentiator, capturing customers who flee less transparent competitors.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.