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.”

A public that may have been blissfully unaware of the capabilities of Big Data has now been shown its vast reach and analytical abilities. Rather than assuming users are aware of what you’re capturing and are chomping at the bit for you to offer more finely targeted advertising and customer segmentation, why not disclose your data gathering activities in plain terms and highlight how those data are used and what benefits the customer can expect. “Transparency” has become overused to the point where it’s meaningless, but it’s obviously not an 80-page “privacy policy” or other legal self-indulgence.

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.