For the first time in human history we possess technology capable of storing and analyzing data in massive quantities–and I mean massive. Since 2012, 2.5 exabytes (2.5×10^8) of data have been created daily, and a large portion of that data is minable. So when your sample size is the entire technology-using population of the planet Earth and the available data for analysis is everything they do–every website that a user visits, every digital purchase that they make, and even every geographically pinpoint-able location that a user visits–it’s not about what information can be gathered; it’s about what you can gather from a world of information. Welcome to the world of Big Data.

In a recent article featured on Millennial CEO, Shelly Kramer touched upon the risks of big data mining, stating that she thinks it will be the key responsibility of future Chief Data Officers to make sure a company manages and uses data in an ethical, legal, and private way. While I agree with Shelly on this, I’d argue that the train’s already left the station, and that a great majority of private and personal data is already being stored and managed in ways that may cause loads of potential harm for years to come.

The fault is not in our collective intention–of course we want to protect our users’ data just as we’d want our own data protected. The problem is that we’ve created a beast that we are incapable of controlling or protecting. As it stands, the sum of a human being’s online (and many times offline) identity can be lifted from the myriad of data currently hosted on public, private, and government servers. Couple this with a startling IBM study that found that 55% of businesses have no security strategy to protect information assets, online presence, or IT infrastructure, and the inherent risk becomes clear.

Honestly, one need look no further than the recent fiasco with dating site Ashley Madison, or any even at of the even larger data breaches that’ve happened in the last 10 years to see that credit card numbers, social security numbers, addresses, and basically any other type of information stored online is up for grabs for those that want it bad enough. And unfortunately for us, perpetrators of cybercrime are on the rise. Conservative figures show that there were actually more disclosed records lost or stolen in the first 3 months of 2014 than there were in all of 2013. Of those breaches, 84% of them occurred within the tech, retail, and government sectors.

With all of that said, I cannot stress enough that it is our ethical responsibility to protect our customers’ data in every way we can.

If you are storing any type of private data, you should be protecting that data as if you were protecting the livelihood of your customer–because you are. We have to realize that, just as a bank with shoddy locks is at fault if your life savings get lifted from their vault, so are we at fault if our users’ information gets stolen from the servers we store it on.

Worse than losing the information of your clients is willingly giving it away without their permission. Of course, the NSA’s infamous Prism program has been mired in controversy, with Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Apple, and every other major company implicated in the state-sponsored snooping have all denied being knowingly involved in the program.

Fortunately, it looks like private companies are still putting up a fight for data privacy against big government, and I suggest we follow their lead–and not just to protect ourselves and our customers in ‘the now,’ but to protect ourselves in the future. It’s evident not only that government entities are interested in utilizing big data to observe and predict trends, but that they are currently doing so–not only via Prism, but through crime mapping, activity tracking, and surveillance drones. If all-surveillance all of the time doesn’t sound fun to you either, consider two things: big data collection isn’t disappearing any time soon (quite the opposite), and if we don’t start really outlining and adhering to a set of secure, ethical standards, we face a slippery slope.

In all, our relationship with big data adopts wider implications than you may realize. Are we, the business owners that are trying to create a better experience for brands and their consumers alike, going to set the precedent on how to ethically and securely use big data? Are we going to set security and sharing standards actually keeps private data private? Or are we going to prove that we’re incapable of doing so?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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