Information fuels much of the growth we’re experiencing in western civilization—some have gone as far as to call information “the new oil.”
However, I'd like to consider another metaphor, which will better capture both the benefits and the risks of the information age: nuclear energy.
For starters, information exists all around us—essentially raw bits generated from nearly every interaction we engage in as individuals, citizens and business managers. Whether we're purchasing, reading online or communicating, we are constantly emanating a trail of bits as we go.
Historically, these bits were ephemeral and relatively inert. They would fade away, perhaps leaving a shadow of someone’s purchases or a dog-eared page on a book indicating another soul had been there before...but not much else.
Today, data of our activities, our whereabouts and our intents are collected and retained by a myriad of parties—some in which we employ directly and others (third parties) that are there simply observing and recording our behaviors. Every single action and “touch point” now creates a stream of recorded data. This stream of data is aggregated, linked and mined in the hopes of generating insights to become smarter about the world around us.
Much like data, radiation also exists all around us. Nearly everything in the physical world emits small amounts of radiation—the sun, our food (bananas are particularly high), and even our bodies all give off this energy. In its natural form, radiation is relatively harmless. Alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays, muons and neutrinos all are emitted in relatively small doses and typically decay before they pose any real threat.
However, when we aggregate radiation by enriching and storing it—it is at this point where radiation becomes increasingly potent, bringing with it all the potential benefits and risks. For example, enriched nuclear energy is used to perform medical procedures, power submarines and fuel entire countries. But consequently, the same energy can also be used to create disastrous weapons or result in toxic spills.
Similarly, the collection, aggregation and storage of information can create huge opportunities as well as huge risk. Big data and its riches have already improved how we approach education, government and health care. Governments, firms and even individuals are instrumenting nearly every interaction in the hopes of generating insights and improving efficiency.
And it is precisely at this point of potency when information (or big data) poses the greatest risks.
When people talk about “the big data revolution,” they're typically not referring to individual pieces of information. They are referring to large volumes of mined data that can become extremely potent. These data are used to describe you and your credit worthiness, your propensity for illness or even your likelihood to cause others harm. And this is not always based on your own actions and activities, but inferences made from observing hundreds that share similar characteristics.
Once the data have been collected, aggregated and mined for inferences, this information takes on an entirely new and potent form—much like enriched uranium. And similarly, harm can arise from an accidental breach and intentional misuse.
Today, nearly all of the efforts to harness big data consider privacy and security as just an afterthought. The trend is to collect, promote and share information—not to limit, secure or delete it.
In this way, we’re all discounting the potential risks associated with the information society, leaving it for some future generation to contend with.
Much like we've done with nuclear energy.
(About the author: Ashkan Soltani is the former chief technologist of the Federal Trade Commission (U.S.) an independent researcher and consultant focused on privacy, security and behavioral economics, and a member of the ISACA. This post originally appeared on his ISACA blog, which can be viewed here)
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