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BI Mobility and Privacy Issues

Originally published October 5, 2010

Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.
Ayn Rand

After pressuring from a group of state attorneys general, the Adult Section on craigslist was removed; and on Labor Day weekend 2010, the link to it on the site's home page was replaced with a black bar reading "censored." Like many other online forums, craigslist typically did not review ads before users posted them.

While studies revealing that as many as 66% of companies are using social media, no one is quite sure what the impact is or what their responsibility and potential liability is! What is certain is that most companies are worried about potential damage to their reputation, security, and private information.

Individuals are equally troubled. In a recent Facebook privacy controversy, Web users made it clear that they are anxious about search engine companies and other third parties having access to their information. Facebook’s subsequent efforts to assuage users did not sit well with U.S. authorities, and they now face scrutiny by the House Judiciary Committee.

Facebook represents an excellent source of user data (URLs, in particular), especially with the relatively new "Like" button generating a significant volume of information over time. As each Facebook user "likes" a page on the web, Facebook registers that information, and the public Facebook application-programming interface (API) makes the relevant page available to external search services without the individual user’s knowledge or approval.

Google has also had to deal with privacy issues. It recently reached a settlement on a class-action suit regarding its Buzz social-networking feature. The company agreed to pay $8.5 million, which – after attorneys' fees and expenses are covered – will be donated to Internet privacy and education organizations. The case dates back to February, when two law firms filed suit on behalf of a 24-year-old Harvard Law School student who asserted that Google opted her into this social network when she didn't want it. Even though Google modified Buzz amidst concerns over what information was displayed publicly, giving users more control over their settings, this did not appease all users and hence a class-action suit began.

It is easier than ever to access, share and collect individual and group data across time and place. I think that this development has significant implications for the practice of business intelligence (BI).

For example, there is a rapidly developing movement in BI toward incorporating new mobile platforms as enterprise devices. The reason for this is that BI software vendors are getting better at delivering charts, graphs, and other data visualizations that are actually legible on smart phones and new tablet devices. For example, BI vendors such as MicroStrategy, MeLLmo, SAP and QlikTech either are or soon will be supporting Apple's iPad tablet.

iPhones, iPads, Droids, iTablets, Galaxys and Androids are among an increasing number of multi-application communication devices that are gaining favor because they are easier to travel with than laptops. Most people see these devices as quite different from PCs, either because the devices have phone capabilities and/or because they contain applications that have a more intimate link with own personal behavior.

BI vendors are beginning to concentrate on how these users can gain value from their products. And there is a real economic incentive for BI vendors to do so, especially since analysts state that global PC sales are dramatically down.

PC makers are facing turbulent economic waters as the continuing global economic slowdown has been cutting into PC demand. In contrast, smartphone sales are up 24% from last year (Gartner estimates that 172 million smartphones were sold worldwide last year), and it is expected that smartphone sales will surpass worldwide PC sales by the end of 2011. In addition, Morgan Stanley projects that tablet computer sales will increase from 8 million devices in 2010 to 49 million in 2013.

Although the mobile apps industry is relatively still in its infancy, U.S. consumers so far this year have spent more than $2.47 billion on apps for everything from social networking to banking. That's up from $1.64 billion in all of 2009, according to an eMarketer report on the industry. Third-party application revenue for tablet devices is expected to exceed $8 billion by 2015.

These projections suggest that BI capabilities and transactions can and will become even more mobile, accessible, and widely distributed. Assuming that BI skills become more widely spread across the population at large, this also suggests that more people will want more data; and they, in turn, will be creating more data, information, and knowledge that will be communicated more frequently to more people. How? The most likely means will be two words – social networking.

It is easy to post text, videos, photos, and analyses. And, as noted earlier, there are those who would mine and exploit this information. For BI, any deliberate or inadvertent electronic distribution to an unintended audience would be extremely problematic since BI information is typically used to make organizational-specific decisions.

Why someone would post BI-specific information is a question that defies a clear answer. Inspection of any assortment social media sites will lead one to appreciate that there is often no clear rationale for understanding why people post some of the content they do! Nevertheless, once it is done, it is accessible and able to be distributed and shared. You no longer have control over who sees it or what they do with it.

Most firms have policies that prohibit the sharing of corporate information online. However, oftentimes firms can’t control what is leaked because they don’t have the means to identify that a leak has occurred or even that the content being shared is sensitive.

The rise in smartphones and tablet technology and the plethora of new apps are going to exacerbate privacy issues for firms in general and BI specifically. The more access people have to data, analytical templates, and social media, the more risk that information can be leaked and decision-making processes revealed.

BI is going to have access to more information from more sources, and it is likely that issues regarding access to user data will continue. This is because there will be more users using more apps that are accessing and generating more data that will be generating new sales and marketing information that can be cultivated from social networks. And firms will want access to this data if they can get it. Forrester Research estimates that online marketers will spend $514 million on web analytics this year, up 19% more than the previous year due to the increasingly important role that analytics plays in the success of online marketing and sales.1

Increasing portability and mobility requires that we should start actively thinking about how privacy issues may compromise BI efforts. There are ethical and legal issues that can potentially impact BI if we are not mindful.

I have no prescription in how to prevent this! However, a basic first step in dealing with any problem is to recognize that there may, in fact, be a problem. In the case of BI privacy, I think the issue is real and being aggravated and accelerated by expanding mobility. Remember, it is not just our data collection and sharing that requires oversight and scrutiny. We also need to insure that we can protect our BI intellectual capital.

  1. Internet Retailer, Buyers Guide 2011, Website Analytics, July 2010.

  • Richard HerschelRichard Herschel

    Richard is Chair of the Department of Decision & System Sciences at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. Before becoming an educator, he worked at Maryland National Bank, Schering-Plough Corporation, Johnson & Johnson, and Columbia Pictures as a systems analyst. He received his BA in journalism from Ohio Wesleyan University, his Master’s in Administrative Sciences from Johns Hopkins, and his Ph.D. from Indiana University in Management Information Systems. He has earned the Certified Systems Professional designation, and he has written extensively about both knowledge management and business intelligence. Dr. Herschel can be reached at herschel@sju.edu.

    Editor's Note: More articles and resources are available in Richard Herschel's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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