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50 years of the data center: How the ethics of data capture have changed

2015 marks 50 years since the 1965 publication of the National Data Center Proposal in the United States.50
This proposal outlined an ambitious plan in which the US Government would create and store detailed files on its citizens – recording everything from their fingerprints and tax records to their education history and criminal records – in a single Federal data center. Importantly, the proposal suggested that these records be stored on magnetic computer tape, so they could be retrieved easily for viewing and ‘research’ by authorities. This was a breathtakingly ambitious vision to create what we would now recognize as an electronic database.
Looking back on it today, there is much in this narrative that is instantly familiar – even if the underlying technologies have since changed beyond recognition. The basic premise of electronic storage is the same but the advent of digital technologies such as flash means that governments and businesses alike can now store far more data, and much less expensively, than was the case in 1965. Today, more data than ever is being captured and analysed – via big data analytics – often delivering real-time insights that have the power to benefit the world around us.
What is interesting to note, however, is how the ethics of data capture have shifted over the last half-century. The National Data Center Proposal was ultimately dropped in 1968 due to concerns over privacy: it was deemed intrusive at the time for the US government to hold that much personal data on its citizenry.
Today, however, we are more willing than ever to share data, and to embrace a multitude of platforms that facilitate this. We do it, willingly and unprompted, every day: posting personal details on social media platforms; giving out banking details to online retailers; sharing fitness data with friends, insurers and consumer goods companies alike – to name just a few examples.
We do it because we see an upside – whether that is communicating more freely, shopping more conveniently or lowering our insurance premiums. Allowing others to store our data can make a material difference to our lives and so, where we perceive that, we embrace it. In fact, a recent study by Vanson Bourne described how today’s connected consumers, the ‘Information Generation’, prioritize faster access to services and more personalized experiences from the businesses they interact with.
Looking forward from the point on, Rajesh Janey, ‎President – India and SAARC at EMC said, “Much has changed in the 50 years since the modern notion of a data center was first put forward, and yet much has also remained the same. The original proposal inspired a great deal of ‘Big Brother’-esque debate, and accelerated our collective awareness of matters of privacy and control. These concerns remain front-of-mind in 2015 – but it is clear that today’s consumers have discovered and embraced the data collection trade-off, and increasingly expect that the organizations they interact with will use data to understand them better and serve-up more accurate and efficient user-experiences.”
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