Data can be as toxic as fossil fuel reserves

This morning’s Observer column:

”Data is the new oil” is a tired metaphor designed to capture the fact that, just as the old economy ran on oil, so the new digital economy runs on data. Just as plentiful reserves of underground oil were good for oil companies, so the possession of masses of data would likewise be a great asset for tech companies lucky enough to have it. And whether or not they count it explicitly as an asset on their balance sheets, in practice it gives them a powerful bulwark against competitors and startups. It’s no longer enough for a couple of grad students to come up with a better search algorithm than Google’s, for example; they would also have to build a global network of massive server farms – and have acquired exabytes of data. So possession of large quantities of data greatly heightens the barrier to entry for competitors and thereby strengthens incumbents. The more data you have, the better.

The ICO’s recent fines, however, cast a shadow on this cosy scene. Possessing oodles of data is only an unalloyed good if you can protect it from thieves, hackers and other criminals. If you can’t, then that precious asset can suddenly turn toxic – just like fossil fuel reserves….

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