Your credit card number has been stolen; the bank sees a suspicious transaction, informs you, and issues you a new card. No big deal.
Your personal health information is stolen, and a criminal group has been making fraudulent claims against your insurance. You are possibly embarrassed by some of the information the thieves know about you, but the insurance company takes responsibility for the claims. Maybe a big deal, but you get over it.
What’s coming next could be much, much worse.
Data about you is everywhere, and companies are actively collecting it. Every device, app, web service, search query, and online transaction. Your friends and business associates, travel plans, photographs, and online cloud storage. Your thermostat, power consumption, and GPS locations. For the most part, companies collecting this data have privacy controls and safeguards in place, and you have agreements with them covering how they can and cannot use the information. But what happens if one of these large databases is breached and data is stolen?
From a personal perspective, it would be a big invasion of privacy, but too many people have the attitude that since they are not doing anything wrong (and are sharing lots of this info on social media anyway), it is not a serious issue. A consequence of this attitude is that many of the companies making the apps, devices, and services that are collecting your data are not taking a strong enough approach to security.
So what? Well, let’s look at some possibilities -- not for you personally, but for the organization you work for. Analyzing travel patterns of company employees could help competitors identify your next acquisition or customers that are ripe for stealing. Combing through search queries and department purchases could point to your next big strategic move.
What if the data breach was at your company? Are you collecting and storing personally identifiable information that could be damaging if stolen or released? So far, companies that have been breached have not suffered consequences serious enough to put them out of business. What if your data could be used to identify people who are cheating on their partners, have a socially sensitive medical condition, or have bought embarrassing things? Could the resulting backlash and lost business actually bankrupt your company?
Going forward, we need to take a more active role protecting ourselves and our companies’ data. Be very selective about what devices, apps, services, and companies you use. Pay close attention to what that service or device is able to track and store. Once data is out of your or your company’s hands, it is much easier for a malicious entity to steal and make use of this information. At the same time, take a serious look at what your company is storing. Big data has lots of potential to make our decisions more efficient and effective. But like any powerful substance, too much in the wrong hands can have disastrous consequences.