Will personal, big data lead to war?

15 Aug 2013 by Scott Middleton

Personal data may become one of the strategic assets of the coming century. Complete with controversy, power struggles and, potentially, war.

The World Economic Forum has defined personal data as a “new asset class” that is a “valuable resource that will touch on all aspects of society.”1

Personal data is digital data created by and about people. This covers everything from demographics and medical history through to tweets, web searches and our real world locations. It is predicted that in just 6 years there will be 44 times more personal data than there is today.

Some, such as the European Consumer Commissioner Meglena Kuneva compare it to oil, one of the most strategic assets of the last one hundred years.

If it is as strategic as oil then the uproar surrounding PRISM, the United States Government’s program to monitor the world’s personal internet usage, is just a taste of what we can expect over the coming century.

The rise of oil over the last hundred years led to no end of controversy, intrigue, power plays, grand strategy and war.

In the early days of oil, the profits were made by oil explorers and frontier businessmen. As the oil industry became more organised companies that we now know as Shell, BP and Exxon emerged. The companies established lucrative deals with poor countries in exchange for concessions (rights to the oil). Over the course of the century the power shifted from oil companies to the countries themselves, countries – like Iran, Saudia Arabia, Venezuala and Kuwait – nationalised oil production and created OPEC to collaborate in exerting as much influence as possible over world oil markets2. America’s reduced dependence on OPEC due to its surge in oil production this year3 will further highlight how strategically important control oil is.

The data industry is in the early days of formation. Digital entrepreneurs are discovering different ways of drilling for data and companies are quickly organising to capture the profits 4. However, people are now becoming aware of how much data is out there about them and they are recognising the need to take control of it, in the same way that the oil producing countries recognised the need to protect their precious, strategic resource.

Where it was nations that took back control of their oil, it will be individuals that take back control of their data.

In an effort to make this happen sooner the World Economic Forum has identified five areas that require action by Governments and companies:

  1. Develop and promote innovative approaches for personal data protection at scale.
  2. Define global principles for using and sharing personal data.
  3. Strengthen the dialogue between regulators and the private sector.
  4. Focus on the development of secure, trusted, reliable and open standards based infrastructure.
  5. Continually share knowledge about how best to manage personal data.

This might help, but if the oil industry is anything to go by it is more likely that a serious jolt or two – think wars or PRISM-like events – are more likely to move the process forward.

More reading:
1. World Economic Forum, Personal Data: The Emergence of a New Asset Class.
2. Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power.
3. Patti Domm, CNBC, US Is on Fast-Track to Energy Independence: Study,http://www.cnbc.com/id/100450133.
4. Bain & Company Industry Brief, Using Data as a Hidden Asset, August 16 2010.

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