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Big Data needs a Big Strategy

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We’ve written several times over the years about the deployment of Big Data. One of the key challenges with such tools is the seductive risk of treating the data as a catch-all answer to a question not asked. Zeitgeist in the past worked with a large client in the public sector that understood this pitfall and studiously avoided it by knowing beforehand what Big Data meant to them, and how it could be used to improve its strategy and operations.

Without such forethought, applications of Big Data can be ineffectual, if not outright harmful, as the president of eBay Marketplaces said last year in an interview with McKinsey. Governments around the world – particularly in the West – have been using Big Data for some time now to help identify extremists. The jury is still out for some as to how harmful government digital surveillance can be. The deliberate weakening of virtual systems has its root in the fact that the US government originally classified once-arcane cryptography as a munition, which when licensed abroad was watered down. “The idea of deliberately weakening cryptography in the name of national security has not gone away”, writes The Economist. An article published in The New Yorker earlier this year investigated the NSA’s uses of Big Data – specifically mass surveillance of individuals in the US and beyond over cellphone metadata, social media, etc. – and found it wanting. This appears to be partly because there is no pre-determined strategy for what they want the data to do, other than to figuratively chuck it onto the pile with the rest of the data they have, which at some point might be used. The efficacy of such a practice, according to the article, has been minimal. In all of its surveillance, the article claims there was but a single case “where the NSA’s phone-records program was decisive”. It is perhaps telling that most of the perpetrators of terrorist attacks that have occurred on Western soil since 9/11 have been known to the intelligence community. In other words, the data needed was presented, but there was no strategic oversight for how it should be deployed. It is perhaps an inevitable consequence of too little direction and too much volume. The New Yorker elaborates, below:

“Patrick Skinner, a former C.I.A. case officer who works with the Soufan Group, a security company, told me… ‘We knew about these networks,’ he said, speaking of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Mass surveillance, he continued, ‘gives a false sense of security. It sounds great when you say you’re monitoring every phone call in the United States. You can put that in a PowerPoint. But, actually, you have no idea what’s going on.’

By flooding the system with false positives, big-data approaches to counterterrorism might actually make it harder to identify real terrorists before they act. Two years before the Boston Marathon bombing, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers alleged to have committed the attack, was assessed by the city’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. They determined that he was not a threat. This was one of about a thousand assessments that the Boston J.T.T.F. conducted that year, a number that had nearly doubled in the previous two years, according to the Boston F.B.I. As of 2013, the Justice Department has trained nearly three hundred thousand law-enforcement officers in how to file ‘suspicious-activity reports.’ In 2010, a central database held about three thousand of these reports; by 2012 it had grown to almost twenty-eight thousand. ‘The bigger haystack makes it harder to find the needle,’ Sensenbrenner told me. Thomas Drake, a former N.S.A. executive and whistle-blower who has become one of the agency’s most vocal critics, told me, ‘If you target everything, there’s no target.’

This last quotation applies to strategy in general. Without anything specific to focus on as a strategic achievement or direction, one shouldn’t expect any improvement in that area.

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