Big data — and its curious link to cannibals — has been on my mind for a while now. It came up nearly two years ago after I read a Pew Internet/Elon University survey on the state of big data, which somehow got me thinking about a Twilight Zone episode called "To Serve Man."
In my arguably twisted, clearly fertile imagination, cannibalism became a metaphor for big data. How? Well, just think of big data as a synonym for the Kanamits, a race of nine-foot-tall aliens who randomly land on Earth and start promoting the fact that their only intention is to help humanity.
Their advanced technologies quickly eradicate many of the planet's oldest problems, from hunger to the high cost of energy. It makes life better, or so it seems -- resolving questions, increasing convenience and transforming barren deserts into big, blooming fields.
Remind you of anything, big data aficionados? It should, especially if you are attending the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona this week.
A Matter of Trust
Anyway, let me get to the point about those cannibals. Everyone trusts the Kanamits because the leader carries a book called To Serve Man. But in the end, after hundreds of humans have willingly boarded a spaceship to return to the Kanamits' home planet, someone realizes the book is not what it seems.
It's really a cookbook, full of recipes about serving man -- on a plate.
So here is my question. Does big data have the potential to serve man or will it simply serve man up on a metaphorical plate to government agencies, marketers and various other data collectors?
While that 2012 Pew Internet/Elon University study showed a fair amount of support for big data, it also contained a healthy dose of skepticism about its collection, use and value. And just yesterday, on day one of the MWC, the same issues repeatedly took center stage.
As analysts from Ovum Ltd., a London-based consultancy that specializes in global coverage of IT and telecommunications, noted, big data is creating an undercurrent of mistrust. A lot of people — and not just those skittish enough to link it with cannibals — are uneasy about its breadth, depth and potential to invade nearly every part of their lives.
What's the Real Deal?
This year at MWC, many organizations are promoting strategies designed to enhance trust of big data. In short, Ovum analysts said, if telecommunications firms want to successfully monetize subscriber's big data, then they need to prove their sincere desire to serve them by earning greater trust.
Ovum calls this Big Trust.
How important is it? Very, principal analyst Mark Little told CMSWire today.
No company can maximize the value of its customers' big data without earning their “Big Trust," he explained.
Little said he has been researching the idea of Big Trust for about 18 months, and just recently expounded on the topic in a new report. "There has to be a quid pro quo," he said. "Consumers have to feel they are getting something in return for the data they provide."
Little said there have been multiple Big Trust moves at the MWC. For example:
- In her keynote, Chua Sock Koong, Group CEO for Singtel, noted that a "key way operators can avoid disintermediation is to leverage their position of trust with customers in a climate of increasing concern over data privacy."
- SK Telecom (SKT), the leading operator in South Korea, launched Life Log, an app that automatically keeps track of its users’ daily lives. It tracks their leisure and health-related activities, and allows them to look up past records and statistics. However, SKT also announced that because information produced by services based on Context Platform is highly personal, it "will take all steps necessary to safeguard the information.”
- Swisscom announced a partnership with WISeKey to provide Trusted Encrypted Personal Clouds in Switzerland. WISeID claims its Personal Cloud "provides trusted digital identities via mobile and desktop apps for individuals and corporations performing confidential transactions on open Internet."
- Orange made an industry-wide call to action regarding digital trust. It wants the industry to be more transparent about data usage and sharing, calling for tools to allow consumers to control their data and for mobile network operators to be consumer champions.
- Finally, Silent Circle and Geeksphone, a new Switzerland-based joint venture, announced Blackphone, a smartphone with a full suite of applications that give worldwide users unprecedented control over privacy and security.
The announcements show the industry increasingly understands that trading on trust-first, rather than on data-first, establishes a game-changing position against data-reliant internet giants, Little said.
Big Trust Principles
Little told CMSWire that companies have to embrace multiple principles to earn Big Trust. That includes security, user control, transparency about the way the data will be used and measures to insure privacy.
There are also two other key concepts, he said. The first is Fair Trade: "If a company is making a lot of money off user data, then they have to provide some sort of benefit in return to maintain trust."
The second is a way to verify the data being collected. "Companies collect quite a bit of information on us, but it might be complete rubbish," he said.
Building Big Trust has potentially big benefits, he added. "It enables a more sustainable model for monetizing subscriber data as well as opening up entirely new opportunities for trust-based services," he said.
There is little argument that big data can improve our ability to find, track and use a myriad of connections and observations. The question Little and others like him are raising is simply, "Will we like what we see or have the humanity to use the information ethically, transparently and for the general good?"
Sure it has the potential to serve man. But as I've said before, that's what the Kanamits said, too.