On September 24, IBM presented new capabilities of Watson – its artificial intelligence system – related to the interpretation of the increasingly vast amount of data available on consumer and business activities.  Watson, best known for its 2011 Jeopardy! victory against two of the game show’s previous champions, consists of an artificial intelligence system that IBM is making available to developers as the core of the next generation of “cognitive” data applications.  The ability to process larger amounts of data only increases the temptation of companies to “keep everything.”  This trend not only brings into doubt the adoption of risk mitigation concepts such as “keep only what you need,” but also presents substantial challenges in information governance through complicated data classification and mapping.

IBM claims that more than one hundred commercial applications currently make use of Watson through application programming interfaces, or APIs.  One of these new services includes Visual Insights, which analyzes images and videos posted to social media, and reports on patterns and trends reflected in those posts.

IBM claims that consumers are producing so much data that traditional programming is inadequate and that advanced artificial intelligence is needed to sift through the mountains of continuously generated data.  Technology and media observer James Niccolai described it as the shift from big data to “gargantuan data.”

These advances in data collection and analysis increase challenges for companies in complying with statutory obligations and even their own privacy policies.  In one example, Peter Diamandis, founder of the nonprofit X Prize Foundation, explained that new satellites capable of imaging objects as small as fifty centimeters across can count the number of cars in a Best Buy parking lot and note the size of the packages customers are carrying out of the store.  Former Sun Microsystems, Inc., CEO Scott McNealy described a Watson-based service called WayIn, which has the ability to trawl images on social media, tag them, and make them searchable, even when they were first uploaded to the Internet without content-based tags. 

Although these developments represent the next logical progression in the collection, analysis, and application of consumer data, the scale and reach of the projects prompted McNealy, now WayIn’s founder and CEO, to comment, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”  There is an obvious benefit to understanding customer behavior, both for Best Buy and its competitors, as described in the foregoing example.  However, companies taking advantage of these new advances must remain aware of the potential risk of adopting technologies and practices which run afoul of their privacy policies or statutory obligations.  Likewise, keeping more data not only complicates the management and governance of that data, but also provides a greater target for breaches and the attendant liability to consumers.  The proper balance between competitive goals and privacy and cyber security can be reached with the right approach and careful response plans.  Only then can adoption of “gargantuan” data not create equally “gargantuan” exposure.