Big Brother's Mining Our Data, Do We Care?

CIO magazine Editor in Chief Maryfran Johnson considers our June 1 cover story on Equifax's new business strategy, which involves massive amounts of consumer and business data. Gen Y is at the edge of a brand new world devoid of privacy. Do they care?

By Maryfran Johnson
Thu, May 31, 2012

CIO — I was talking recently with the CIO of a midsize bank about the potential of mobile apps and social media to attract college kids as new customers. The bank had conducted a focus group of twentysomethings to explore what they really wanted. "They love free stuff. They'll do anything for a $5 Starbucks card," said this CIO, clearly a bit surprised by how easy it was to capture these customers.

He then imagined a twentysomething customer sitting by the shore, eating cereal, watching the sun rise and tweeting about it. "We have the technology to know who that is, where they're at, and now they're telling us what they're doing," he continued. "But what do we do with that? Do we say: 'Hey, it's great you're enjoying yourself, but do you realize you might be paying too much for your student loan?' That's a little too invasive."

Well, maybe not.

As you'll realize while reading Senior Editor Kim S. Nash's riveting cover story ("Equifax Eyes Are Watching You--Big Data Means Big Brother"), the whole concept of privacy is starting to seem a bit quaint these days. "We know more about you than you would care for us to know," says CIO Dave Webb of Equifax.

As one of three major U.S. credit bureaus (TransUnion and Experian being its rivals), Equifax has data on 500 million consumers and 81 million businesses globally--a staggering collection of more than 800 billion records to analyze, manipulate and combine in more inventive, revealing ways than you might imagine.

To research her story, Nash spent a day at Equifax's Atlanta headquarters, delving into the astonishing array of products and services the IT team there is crafting from those vast stores of data. The result is an impressive story of IT innovation and the power of decision analytics, with some startling revelations about where big data is heading.

"The majority of consumers have no clue about the breadth of the information about them, where their information is residing and who has access to it," notes one expert in our story. "It's a shifting landscape," adds analyst Elizabeth Mason of Outsell, an IT market researcher "We don't know yet what the public's tolerance is for companies mining all of this data."

I wonder if that imaginary college kid, munching cereal and tweeting by the seashore, would worry about all this. I suspect not. Most of us are only dimly aware of how much data can be assembled about every aspect of our lives. Are there limits to our tolerance? Write in and let us know.

Maryfran Johnson is the editor in chief of CIO Magazine & Events. Email her at mfjohnson@cio.com.

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