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Is Big Data Good or Evil? Maybe Neither?

I just finished reading a great article from one of my former colleagues, Bill Franks. He makes a strong argument that Big Data is not inherently good or evil anymore than money is. What makes Big Data (or any data as I see it) take on a characteristic of good or evil is how it is used. Same as money, right? Here’s the rest of Bill’s article.

Bill framed his thoughts within the context of a discussion with a group of government legislators who I would characterize based on his commentary as a bit skittish of government collecting Big Data. Given many recent headlines, I sincerely do not blame them for being concerned. In fact, I applaud them for being cautious.

At the same time, while Big Data seems to be the “type” of data everyone wants to speak about, the scope of the potential problem extends to ALL data. Just because a particular dataset is highly structured into a 20 year old schema that does not exclude it from misuse. I believe structured data has been around for so long people are comfortable with (or have forgotten about) the associated risks.

Any data can be used for good or ill. Clearly, it does not make sense to take the position that “we” should not collect, store and leverage data based on the notion someone could do something bad.

I suggest the real conversation should revolve around access to data. Bill touches on this as well. Far too often, data, whether Big Data or “traditional”, is openly accessible to some people who truly have no need based on job function.

Consider this example – a contracted application developer in a government IT shop is working on the latest version of an existing application for agency case managers. To test the application and get it successfully through a rigorous quality assurance process the IT developer needs a representative dataset. And where does this data come from? It is usually copied from live systems, with personally identifiable information still intact. Not good.

Another example – Creating a 360 degree view of the citizens in a jurisdiction to be shared cross-agency can certainly be an advantageous situation for citizens and government alike. For instance, citizens can be better served, getting more of what they need, while agencies can better protect from fraud, waste and abuse. Practically any agency serving the public could leverage the data to better serve and protect. However, this is a recognized sticky situation. How much data does a case worker from the Department of Human Services need versus that of a law enforcement officer or an emergency services worker need? The way this has been addressed for years is to create silos of data, carrying with it, its own host of challenges. However, as technology evolves, so too should process and approach.

Stepping back and looking at the problem from a different perspective, both examples above, different as they are, can be addressed by incorporating a layer of data security directly into the architecture of the enterprise. Rather than rely on a hodgepodge of data security mechanisms built into point applications and silo’d systems, create a layer through which all data, Big or otherwise, is accessed.

Big Data - Good or Evil

Through such a layer, data can be persistently and/or dynamically masked based on the needs and role of the user. In the first example of the developer, this person would not want access to a live system to do their work. However, the ability to replicate the working environment of the live system is crucial. So, in this case, live data could be masked or altered in a permanent fashion as it is moved from production to development. Personally identifiable information could be scrambled or replaced with XXXXs. Now developers can do their work and the enterprise can rest assured that no harm can come from anyone seeing this data.

Further, through this data security layer, data can be dynamically masked based on a user’s role, leaving the original data unaltered for those who do require it. There are plenty of examples of how this looks in practice, think credit card numbers being displayed as xxxx-xxxx-xxxx-3153. However, this is usually implemented at the application layer and considered to be a “best practice” rather than governed from a consistent layer in the enterprise.

The time to re-think the enterprise approach to data security is here. Properly implemented and deployed, many of the arguments against collecting, integrating and analyzing data from anywhere are addressed. No doubt, having an active discussion on the merits and risks of data is prudent and useful. Yet, perhaps it should not be a conversation to save or not save data, it should be a conversation about access

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