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.
“The man who opened your lives to Big Data finally bares his own,” reads the introduction to this most stirring memoir.
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.