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The Truth is Out There … Way Out There … and Some Times it Should Be Left There

When thinking about detecting and preempting fraud and evil acts it is often true that the piece of data one needs is not digital or not discoverable. In some cases, an organization should think about acquiring such data. And in other cases, one should not.

Despite the often insatiable appetite for more data, especially in crisis response, some truths are best left out of reach.

While there is an enormous amount of digital data, most of the happenings here on Earth are not being digitized and captured, and when they are, they are not captured in a useful manner.

Just for a sanity check on this point, look out your window at the events of the world. Note that, for the most part, sensors are not recording a multitude of events, including movements (e.g., the cyclist), orientations (e.g., the direction someone is facing), interactions (e.g., gestures between drivers), inflection (e.g., facial expressions), or dialogs (e.g., face to face conversations).

[Fortunately, our thoughts, for the time being, are safely tucked away too – although there are emerging technologies that appear to be cracks in this sacred enclave – something I will try to blog on in the future.]

Many recorded events are still captured on "hardcopy" (via pencil and paper) - and if ever converted to a digital form later will be subject to serious data quality challenges.

For example, many smaller road-side hotels still capture guest data on paper registration cards. Visitor sign-in sheets for building access are typically collected as paper scribbles. The same for taxi cab receipts, and so on.

Then, of course, there are millions of individual systems of record that are not part of a larger enterprise system. Think of the millions of individual word processing documents and spreadsheets, and think of all of those home grown systems and niche small business systems, many of which are not connected to the world.

This data is, for the most part, undiscoverable, because unless you know who to ask, you will never find the data. So while it is true that a lot of digital data is available in this world, there is an even larger body of "happenings" that are simply not discoverable. Yet it is natural to want it all.

What is the consequence of this? When seeking an information advantage over an adversary, organizations contemplate what additional relevant happenings can be sensed, recorded and made discoverable.

The challenge then becomes acquiring and leveraging advantageous information, within the bounds of law and policy, in a manner that does not erode privacy and civil liberties, with enough transparency, oversight and accountability to reduce the risk of consumer surprise … and all the while hoping one does not tip off the bad actors resulting in a simple tradecraft change that blinds yours senses … again.

Some sensing and data collection is simply not worth the price. For example, if the country could save 1,000 lives a year if all humans over twelve years old wore little antennae on their heads, (each being geospatially tracked by government systems), would it be wise to opt into this utopia. Or, would we be way down the slippery slope into a dystopia? I think the latter.

[Sidebar: All this being said, I also think organizations have a lot more work to do towards taking advantage of their existing information assets they have already collected. And in many contexts this may be a more fruitful task than continuing to crawl the world for more.]

Postings on this site don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Jeff Jonas (opens in new tab) is the chief scientist of IBM Software Group’s Threat and Fraud Intelligence unit and works on technologies designed to maximize enterprise awareness. Jeff also spends a large chunk of his time working on privacy and civil liberty protections. He will be writing a series of guest posts for Netcrime Blog.

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