Saturday, 22 June 2013

Big Data - Keep calm and carry on?

It is an uncomfortable truth that oil has been a contributing factor of nearly all recent international conflicts. So when our Big Data evangelists tell us that "Data is the new oil," it may be more of a problem than we currently understand.

Julian Assange recently stated that the internet has become a militarised zone. He was responding to the  revelations about the surveillance system, 'Prism' that was recently leaked. But is this something new?

Whether we like it or not, the internet and criminality have always been uneasy partners. Everyone gets phishing emails. We all know not to follow links for generic Viagra or bank password resets. We also know that those polite and badly worded emails that you have inherited millions of dollars are a bit too good to be true! You only need to see the amount of virus definitions that your anti-virus software updates on a weekly basis to see that computer spying and infiltration have been an accepted way of life for many years.

We have become so accustomed to implementing our own defence systems (firewalls) and counter-measures (anti-virus) that we have become blind to the reality. There is a war on for our data. The Americans haven't just invented spying. It is a burgeoning international business. How could we possibly forget the Leveson revelations of computer hacking by the red-top journalists of Fleet Street? How about the Stuxnet worm that that was allegedly developed by an alliance between Israel and USA intelligence? China and Russia have also been implicated at other times.

It is clear that Stuxnet was the first reported government sponsored worm that achieved successful military sabotage. This worm was used to target Iran's uranium enrichment programme by causing major failures in their specialist software that was manufactured by Siemens.

So as data becomes increasingly valuable, it becomes an even greater target. With spying comes other activities of warfare - destruction of property and the disabling of capability.

The new "Big data" warehouses being built are of such value and importance that they may be too big and important to fail. We are becoming increasingly dependent on our data. Distributing computer operations over large arrays of nodes decreases risk by spreading operations over a collection of cores, but this complexity also increases the possible points of failure and the ease with which sabotage can happen.

With the rapidly growing rewards of big data, we must take great care to understand the risks. We are now building ubiquitous systems of such importance that they become targets on a military-industrial scale.

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