I had the privilege of watching the recent NSA surveillance story unfold from my hotel room in London this June. Seeing the story from a decidedly non-American viewpoint got me thinking a bit differently about the implications for our society.

From my point of view - no matter how you define the squishy and now beat-to-death “big data” concept – the NSA story has moved it from something “they use” to something that is uncomfortably close to where we live our lives. In other words, big data just moved in next door and is peeking over our fences and into our living rooms. Eeek!

There are lots of socio-political issues with this, and I’m not even going to go there. However, the way that I see it, this incident will ultimately create a lot of opportunity for businesses savvy enough to get ahead of it the can of worms now squirming in our laps.

I think one of two things is going to happen. Either: 1) the U.S. general public will shrug and go back to business as usual and this story will die; or 2) the public outrage will demand governmental oversight and accountability resulting in a tightening of our legal system.  The latter case would be an example of how digital disruption, a topic we have written and blogged about for a while, is not just a business thing. It’s a cultural phenomenon that will rock our society for a long time.

We'll have to wait and see how it plays out but, consider this – if the NSA story results in significant new legislation to protect or at least inform U.S. citizens when their Web and cellular activity is being used, it will put a lot of disruptive pressure on telecoms, social sites, digital content providers and the likes and create a host of new opportunities. For example, legislative changes could make it more difficult for social web providers to share your information, perhaps by requiring more explicit “opt out” functions. This would naturally result in many folks choosing to do exactly that, in turn putting pressure on major revenue streams for firms who depend on this data. As result, savvy firms will jump on opportunities to help people feel more comfortable and in control of their personal information. I know that many firms have been struggling with when to invest in providing more personal information protection features in the customer facing apps. The time may be now.

In summary, the NSA story has made very real to a once naive public that the assumed protection of anonymity is not what it was. Big data has disrupted that comforting notion and our society is bound to change because of it. Welcome to the digital age!

This blog originally appeared at Forrester Research.

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