With big data comes big responsibility

In this guest post, Darren Watkins, managing director at colocation provider VIRTUS Data Centres, on how to help organisations take back control over their big data.

When the story broke in March that 50 million Facebook profiles were harvested for British research firm Cambridge Analytica in a major breach, questions about the misuse of personal data once again hit the headlines.

There has been a barrage of promises in response from European politicians and tech executives, vowing to do their best to tighten up controls over our data and even introduce new laws to punish blatant malpractice.

Facebook itself has been contrite, with public apologies from CEO Mark Zuckerberg and most recently the announcement of a bounty program which will reward people who find cases of data abuse on its platforms.

Using big data for good

Incidents like this undoubtedly fuel public wariness about how commercial organisations use their data, but – on the flip side – those in the technology industry know that data capture can be of enormous benefit.

From improving healthcare to powering shopping, travel and even how we fall in love, ‘big data’ is all around us and it’s here to stay. Indeed the Open Data Institute’s (ODI) recent YouGov poll of British adults revealed nearly half of people said they would share their own data – without restrictions – about their background and health preferences if it helped advance academic understanding of areas such as medicine or psychology.

However, for any organisation that operates with data there is a fine line to tread between innovation and responsibility.

There’s a big move at the moment for companies to embrace the ethos of responsible innovation. For some, this means creating products and services designed to meet humanitarian needs. Facebook’s partnership with UNICEF to better map disaster areas is a great example of this. For others it means everyone in the IT industry should move away from looking at their work from a purely technical point of view and ask how their developments may affect end-users and society as a whole.

When it comes to data applications, responsible innovation is a commitment to balancing the need to deliver compelling, engaging, products and services, with the need to make sure data is stored, processed, managed and used properly. This process starts way away from the headlines, or the CEO statements.

Preparation is key

To avoid falling victim to breaches or scandals, companies must ensure they have the right ‘building blocks’ in place. And this starts with data security.

Simple hacking is where big data shows big weakness, thanks to the millions of people whose personal details can be put at risk with any single security breach. The scope of the problem has grown considerably in a short time. It wasn’t too long ago that a few thousand data sets being put at risk by a hack was a major problem. But in September 2017, Yahoo confirmed it did not manage to secure the real names, date of birth, and telephone numbers of 500 million people. That’s data loss on an unimaginable scale, and for the public, that’s scary stuff.

This, together with the computing power needed for big data applications, puts increasing pressure on organisations’ IT and data centre strategies, and this is the challenge which most urgently needs to be overcome. Indeed, it’s not an exaggeration to say that data centre strategy could be crucial to big data’s ultimate success or failure.

For even the biggest organisations, the cost of having (and maintaining) a wholly-owned datacentre can be prohibitively high. But security concerns can mean a wholesale move to cheap, standard, cloud platforms in a hybrid model – where security may not be as advanced – also isn’t an option.

Instead, the savviest firms are turning to colocation options for their data storage needs, recognising that moving into a shared environment means that IT can more easily expand and grow, without compromising security or performance.

It’s by starting here, in the ‘weeds’ of the data centre, that companies can ensure they’ve got firm control over their biggest asset – the data they have and how they use it.

As the public grows more wary of data breaches, the pressure will (and already has) come to bear on the business community to pay more attention to securing, storing and using data in the right way. Countermeasures that used to be optional are in the process of becoming standard and increased pressure is being put on company’s IT systems and processes. For us, it’s in the datacentre where companies can take firm control – avoid the scandals and make sure that innovation is done right.

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