Technologists Heal Thyself

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dale neefIn this special guest feature, Dale Neef of DNA Data Solutions discussed how each day our personal data is collected and exchanged through millions of electronic transactions in a data collection market now worth many billions of dollars worldwide. But with data hacking and the universality of the Internet, that personal data can soon be posted around the globe, irretrievable and un-erasable. Have we reached the end of privacy as we have always know it before, or can we begin to regulate data collection and use, and how can that be done with data flowing fluidly across many jurisdictions around the globe? Dale Neef serves as Managing Principal at DNA Data Solutions. He is a businessman, consultant, speaker, and author specializing in “Big Data” management issues and electronic monitoring and reporting technologies. Dale has been a technical consultant for the Asian Development Bank, has worked for IBM and Computer Sciences Corporation, and was a fellow at Ernst & Young’s Center for Business Innovation. He earned his doctorate from Cambridge University and was a research fellow at Harvard.

There is nothing is more gratifying than seeing real data providing organizations and society with real insight. And we all appreciate that Big Data has the potential to do that – especially in areas (supply chains, pharmaceutical research, epidemiology, weather, etc.) where the data being collected is empirical and verifiable.

But that’s not what most organizations are doing with Big Data technologies.

Let’s be honest; the vast majority of companies using new Big Data tools are using the technology to collect personal data – to monitor, track, and collect highly intimate information on millions of (often unsuspecting) people at a level that would never have been acceptable even a few years ago.

Consider who now collects our personal data under the auspices of Big Data:

  • The technology conglomerates: Central to their business model and an integral part of their offerings, the Internet technology companies (most notably Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Amazon, etc.) use tracking technologies such as cookies and social plug-ins to monitor search terms, track a user’s “traffic” patterns on web sites, filter that data through recommendation engines, and monitor the user’s reaction to ads that they post. And as these technology conglomerates have drawn users ineluctably toward their content and Cloud-based offerings, they now capture, store and analyze virtually everything we do on our PCs, tablets or smartphones – day after day expanding the growing personal profiles they hold on millions of users.
  • Credit reporting agencies: Once focused on providing independent third-party validation of financial probity, the credit reporting agencies (CRAs) have been collecting data on almost everyone in America – our identity (age, sex, race), employment, income and spending, major purchases, creditworthiness, criminal activity, marriages, divorce settlements, and courthouse appearances – for decades. They now use Big Data technologies to expand their ever-growing dossiers on millions of individuals, with a group like Acxiom using its more than 23,000 computer servers to collect some 1,500 data points on more than 500 million people worldwide. And although the confidentiality of credit scores is still protected by law, CRAs now sell on these profiles (as well as non-protected data) to almost anyone who will pay for them.[i]
  • Bricks-and-mortar retailers: Then, of course, there are the retail stores that today combine data captured from loyalty cards and Point-of-sale (POS) purchases to build up a personal profile of our purchases, preferences, and buying patterns. They capture data on what we eat, what we wear, what we read, what medications we take and who wrote those prescriptions – an oncologist, an ophthalmologist, or an obstetrician. Collecting consumer data on more than 145 million Americans, Wal-Mart’s CEO of Global E-commerce recently boasted that Wal-Mart “want to know what every product in the world is. We want to know who every person in the world is. And we want to have the ability to connect them together in a transaction.”[ii]
  • The invisible data trackers: Possibly most insidious of all are the myriad tracking technologies – often several hundred on popular web sites – poised to drop tracking code onto our computers in the first millisecond of our visit. Using the same type of crawling technology developed for search engines, these invisible trackers latch on to users electronically and follow their web activity onto other sites, vacuuming up e-mail contacts, capturing comments on discussion boards, blogs, or online chatrooms. A recent test conducted by the Wall Street Journal found that by visiting just 50 popular websites, 2,224 trackers from 131 different companies were dropped onto their computer.

There are many arguments in favor of customized electronic advertising, and from a technologist’s point of view, these Big Data technologies have meant exciting opportunities to expand our data management boundaries using Massively Parallel Processing (MPP), and new NoSQL and Hadoop/MapReduce platforms. But technologists and business leaders are citizens too, and while we’re designing and managing the platforms that are collecting data on all our customers, other organizations are managing systems that are doing the same thing to us and our families.

Is this level of personal data monitoring, whatever the business justification, really a good thing?

There is already a considerable backlash beginning from the non-tech sector concerning private data policies, particularly in Europe, but it is growing here in the US as well. Even apart from the continuing plague of data breaches and the creepy nature of such personal monitoring, this focus on personal data is bad for innovation: it is only a matter of time before we find ourselves with end-to-end encryption, a balkanized Internet, anti-tracking software, and a number of clumsy and unworkable rules from data privacy regulators.

Should we, as technologists, begin to be more circumspect about what personal data we’re helping our organizations to collect? It may well be time that the technology sector began to think the unthinkable and realize that an over-enthusiastic, no-holds-barred dash for personal data collection may be abetting a trend that we don’t actually want – and one that may ultimately be bad for the global Internet, the technology industry, and our families and fellow citizens as well.

[i] Singer, Natasha, “You for Sale: Mapping, and Sharing, the Consumer Genome,” New York Times, June 16, 2012,

[ii] Clark, Evan, “Walmart Sets Aggressive Digital Plan.” Women’s Wear Daily,” May 2, 2013,


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