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Guest blog post by Bernard Marr.

Big Data is one of the most potentially dangerous and destructive new technologies to come about in the last century. While a new fighter jet or a new type of bomb can certainly wreck havoc, big data has the potential to insidiously undermine and subtly (and not-so subtly) change almost every aspect of modern life.

As you may know, I’m an advocate for big data; it’s my business and my passion. But I’m also an advocate for understanding the risks associated with it and taking the appropriate measures to counteract them.

I see the major risks of big data as follows.

1.  It will challenge how businesses are run and the business models that will help them succeed. This is both good and bad. For some businesses, this underlying change will signal huge opportunity and trigger massive growth. For others who cannot adapt and change with the times, it will signal the beginning of the end. I predict we will see many more instances of upstart companies coming in and changing the entire dynamic of a particular field or market, the way Netflix disrupted video rentals and Uber has disrupted taxi service. Established “old school” businesses should wake up and take note. And these sorts of disruptions could have major potential economic implications.

2. Everything can be tracked and analysed. When I say everything, I mean everything. We have only scratched the surface of the data it is possible to collect about our lives, our businesses, our environment, our behaviours.  I’ve written about some of the cool and frightening aspects of the Internet of Things, which will drive the big data generation going forward. And while it’s great for a company to know exactly what’s happening with its stock and products, where does it cross the line when they want to know everything about what their employees and customers are doing as well? Is it OK to track information about your children? Your health? Your buying habits? Your social interactions? And if it is permissable to track that information, under what circumstances? And who gets to access it? Who owns it?  All these questions remain largely unanswered while the technology pushes ever forward.

3. Privacy problems and discrimination become rampant. Since everything about us can be tracked, it can also be used for nefarious purposes. Privacy law has not kept up with the technology and the types of data being collected. Who owns the data that is collected about you — you, or the company that collects it? The answer will determine how that data can be shared and used, whether it’s about your buying habits online or more private maters. In addition, the more data we collect, the easier it is to parse down and use it to market (or not) to particular segments of the population, creating a new kind of discrimination. There are already accounts of data-driven discrimination happening; car insurance companies, for example, tend to penalise people who drive late at night, but that can impact otherwise safe drivers who happen to work a swing shift, and who tend to be lower-income to start with.

4. Data about us could be used to spy on us. Actually, it’s already happening. We know organisations like the NSA are using data to spy on people. But it could go much further. China has developed a “social credit score” that is impacted by not just what you say and do personally, but what your social media friends say and do as well. And Russia's Red Web is essentially a back door to the Internet, allowing the Russian intelligence agencies free access to every Russian ISP. Where does national security end and privacy begin? It’s a question that has yet to be resolved.

5. Finally, there is the danger from hacking and cyber crime. Having all our data somewhere in the cloud (or on the oceans) leaves it vulnerable to attacks and misuse. Remember the good old days when bad guys had to physically steal a laptop or hard drive to access sensitive files? Not anymore. For every new security measure there is a hacker or criminal somewhere working on breaking it. And companies rarely take security as seriously as they should. In addition, I await with dread the first serious terrorist attack on our data or computer systems. Think of all the infrastructure, utilities, and vital information that relies on data and the cloud and then think about what a catastrophe it would be if it all went down at once. If that doesn’t give you nightmares, I don’t know what will

In short, big data is dangerous. We need new legal frameworks, more transparency and potentially more control over how our data can be used to make it safer. But it will never be an inert force. In the wrong hands big data could have very serious consequences.

Are you concerned about big data?  Why or why not? I’d be interested to hear your responses in the comments below. 

About the author

Bernard Marr is a best-selling business author, keynote speaker and consultant in strategy management, performance management, analytics, KPIs and big data. He helps companies to better manage, measure, report and analyse performance. His leading-edge work with major companies, organisations and governments across the globe makes him a globally acclaimed and award-winning researcher, consultant and teacher.

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Comment by Boris Shmagin on September 18, 2016 at 4:35pm

There is a book: "Weapons of Math Destruction How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy" by
Cathy O’Neil. Crown, 2016. 272 pp

Comment by Tony Lange on September 15, 2016 at 7:43pm
What about the danger of making false conclusions ie mixing up correlation with causality? Or over generalizing. I am seeing this happening by the bucketful, with the assumption the more the merrier ?
Comment by Dorothy Hewitt-Sanchez on September 15, 2016 at 2:36pm

I am like you passionate about Big Data; but I do see the current and future troubles.    It is terrifying.  Nevertheless, I think it is out of our hands.   We are like drunk people driving forward 5, 10, 15 miles; Then suddenly we hit the brakes and drive backward 30 miles.  We keep repeating the cycle over and over again.  We are drunken people in the car laughing and driving.  Drink a little more laughing, move forward 10 miles, stop drink a little more, put the car in reverse drive backward 20 miles, laughing all the way.  Over and over again, losing ground between every stop;   How far have we traveled?  

Comment by John L. Ries on September 15, 2016 at 11:31am

I've been considering writing a satirical advertisement for a political reliability bureau for the past several years (no, I haven't gotten around to it yet): like a credit bureau, but geared toward measuring likely political attitudes so that clients can determine if the subject is fit to associate with (one wouldn't want a neighbor to drive down the resale value of local homes by voting the wrong way).  I think the data and technology to do that have been available for a while now, and the political culture is fast moving in that direction.

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