Preparing for the infoglut

Within the next 10 years the convergence of multiple technologies will thrust people into a world where nothing is secret. While the volume of data generated by all sorts of surveillance technologies was once so vast and complex that only powerful multinationals could manage it, by 2010 average people will have enough desktop power to compromise the privacy of their fellow citizens.

Unfortunately, that’s us.

The social systems that guarantee ethical use of that information are lagging behind. The good news is that this creates a business opportunity for those businesses that can demonstrate that they can be trusted.

Mentats make sense of the infoglut

Ubiquitous monitoring is technologically feasible and will soon be economically feasible for the average man in the street. Here’s the rub. At the moment, the boundaries are established by personal ethics, not by policy. Information is international; laws are not. Something’s got to change. It won’t be the information. The data analysis needed to compromise someone’s privacy will go from intractable with current technology to mildly difficult when the mentat – one of the most powerful technologies of the next decade – is deployed.

The word mentat was invented by novelist Frank Herbert in his science-fiction classic Dune. In the fictional world of Dune, computers are outlawed and human mentats analyze data, spot patterns and make decisions. In our world, computer mentats will do the same.

Mentats don’t exist yet, but they are appearing. Use a search engine and you’re using a baby mentat. Yahoo!’s information hierarchies, for instance, are a well-known example of an I-filter. They organize information and screen or demote stuff that’s supposedly less relevant.

But search engines have two agendas, one overt, the other covert. The overt agenda is to present information that’s precisely relevant to the user’s interests. The covert agenda is to present information that’s relevant and for which advertising fees have been paid.

In a world without secrets, mentats and I-filters are necessary and dangerous.

Rise of the network army

The consequences of privacy leakage are not all one way. Groups of citizens can use mentats and I-filters to create network armies. The network army forms, often suddenly, when the agenda of isolated communities and individuals align. Its communications are public, enabled by the Internet, and it takes shape in the open.

Don’t start a war when facing a network army. There are no leaders, so the war can only end when one side surrenders completely. Negotiations must be carried out in public and consist of actions, not words.

In a world without secrets, individuals, governments, businesses, institutions and even terrorist organizations will join network armies. Take care not to become their nemesis.

Businesses historically had lots of secrets from their suppliers and partners. That worked in an era when everybody was an adversary in one way or another. It won’t work now.

To maintain responsiveness, businesses must know the capacities, capabilities, skills, strengths and weaknesses of their strategic partners and suppliers in their value chain. That visibility will extend all the way to the customer in the next few years. By then, companies that can’t raise their performance to competitive levels will be detected immediately and pushed out of the network.

Initially partners in a value chain will use these indicators to assess and predict each other’s performance. Sooner or later, investors and markets will use them for the same purpose. Instead of looking backward at financials, markets will use performance metrics to look forward and predict the status of customer relationships.

What this means is that information security and privacy will continue at the top of CIO priorities for the foreseeable future and that CIOs will be asked to implement increasingly comprehensive technology for managing compliance with privacy regulations. Then firms will be able to start making money out of knowing every move their customers make – but not talking about it to anyone.

Andrew Rowsell-Jones is vice president and research director for Gartner’s CIO Executive Programs.

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