Corporations, marketers, and governments are exploring the practical and legal limits of collecting and utilizing Big Data. One man began thinking about its value decades before anyone else, and he’s revealing his professional insights, personal experiences, and career triumphs in a new book, Matters of Life and Data: The Remarkable Journey of a Big Data Visionary Whose Work Impacted Millions –Including You, available in July.
Indeed, he has much to share, as Morgan, 72, should know a few things about Big Data. The company he helped grow into a technology and marketing powerhouse, Acxiom, is a world leader in data-gathering and its accompanying technology, and has collected over 1,500 separate pieces of information on some half a billion people around the globe.
His book recounts and celebrates a journey from his modest upbringing in a small town on the Arkansas River to his role as one of America’s all-time Big Data visionaries. During his 36-year tenure, Morgan grew a small data processing firm of 25 employees into a global juggernaut by becoming one of the largest aggregators of data and consumer information in the world. He transformed the small data processing company into a publicly held, $1.4 billion corporation with 7,000 employees and offices throughout the world.
The following is a Q&A with Charles Morgan:
MEDIA CONNECT: How can we protect the privacy of individuals but still allow companies to benefit from the use of Big Data?
Charles Morgan: Big Data has the potential to do a great deal of good in our world today and for many years to come. On the other hand, Big Data will create a lot privacy issues. Today, much more data is being recorded about each of us than you might imagine. In February 2015, for example, Samsung admitted that their new TVs will be collecting data about the people who watch them. That data will include voice data (what you say about what you are watching), picture data (your expressions as you watch), and viewing data. Samsung of course claims that this data will only be used to improve the quality of the overall experience of using their product. Do I believe them? I don’t doubt that this is what they intended these data-collection TVs to do, but it sure doesn’t take much imagination to see a great potential for misuse of such data. We will never be able to write enough laws to totally solve this problem. We cannot stop companies from using data that improves the quality of products and services.
However, we must somehow protect ourselves from misuse. At Acxiom, our motto was “consumer privacy is a state of mind.” It didn’t matter if something was legal; the question should be posed, “Is this right? Is this the way we would want to have our data collected and used?” Companies have to have education programs for their employees and create that state of mind—that the security of people’s personal data is important to our whole society.
MC: You say that Acxiom Corporation, a world leader in data gathering and its accompanying technology, has obtained some 1,500 separate pieces of information on over a half-billion people worldwide. How do we make sure the information is not used wrongfully?
CM: I had great concerns about the possibility of data misuse at Acxiom. We had literally hundreds of thousands of data files with extraordinary amounts of in-depth information about everyone who lived in the United States and many in Europe. I developed a philosophy that we could not create enough rules at Acxiom to solve the problem. Eventually I came to believe that creating an atmosphere and culture of data protection was the best answer. We chose to educate our people and to create a simple set of rules. For example, the “do right rule” taught our employees to think about the data that they cared for as data about people just like themselves—in fact, it could even include their own family members. So treat that data like you would want your own data to be treated.
Of course there were more complex rules that applied in all of our data practices. There were—and still are—laws that protect people’s credit data. Credit data could only be used for preapproved credit offers and not for other kinds of marketing. To help oversee all this process of education and oversight with our employees and our customers, in 1991 I appointed a chief privacy officer. Jennifer Barrett became the first chief privacy officer in the United States, and today she still holds that position at Acxiom. Jennifer has become a global leader in marketing data use and data protection.
MC: Early on your company was in debt and couldn’t make payroll. You asked people to cut their pay in half for a period of time in exchange for paying them a more once you got past the dark period. How did that turn out?
CM: We got to a point in 1976 when we were losing money and were in danger of not being able to make payroll. Our principal owners, the Wards of school bus fame, were in terrible financial shape and they had no ability to help us out. There was no one to fire and no way to cut expenses that I could see. So I came up with the crazy idea that if we could make our payroll a third smaller, we could survive.
All we had to do was to get the top six most highly paid people, including myself, to take a 50 percent pay cut. I can’t imagine going to a management team today with such a scheme. We were working on some new very promising opportunities that would make the company profitable if we successfully completed them. I told everyone that they would get two dollars back for every dollar of pay they gave up, should we succeed. I must’ve been very convincing because they bought it and no one left. And not only did they double their money, but through this crisis we also developed increased levels of trust and a stronger bond within the top leadership team.
MC: Do you think the laws will change with technology as it relates to what information is gathered, shared, and used?
CM: Controlling the gathering and use of data has always been a complex problem to administer. The Internet is making this problem almost too big to comprehend. Certainly laws will have to be written and old laws amended to give basic protection to citizens of the world. On the one hand, people say, “I don’t want anyone using any data about me without my permission”—even as those same people post everything about their private lives on Facebook. On the other hand, companies say, “We’re going to protect the consumer and their information”—even as those same companies are putting cameras and listening devices in their TVs to collect information about viewing habits. Much of the data that companies collect for a specific reason is used to benefit consumers.
The problem is that the quantity of the data that is being collected, by electronic devices and over the Internet, is growing exponentially today. Access to the data that companies collect is usually carefully protected, but not always. There have been a number of widely publicized situations in which well-respected companies have gotten in hot water for collecting and using data improperly. Additional laws are going to be complex to write, but are certainly needed to cover potential Big Data abuses. We do have examples of successful laws, such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act—25 years and counting, and that law is still serving us well. The best way to solve these problems is not to rush to a conclusion, but to get industry involved in making recommendations in new areas like the Internet. All I can say is, I’m glad I’m not a legislator or a lawyer, because I really don’t have great answers in this area.