- Date published:
- Author:Brian Wood
Google says ‘Shhh, don’t say big, just say data’
Vendors are still comfortable with saying “big data” in public these days, but many of their business customers would rather not utter the term aloud.
Take for example Google, king of the big data hill. The few cases you’ll find the search giant using that term is in notes to developers and in job ads for big data workers and scientists. But press releases and communications to the public–nope, not so much as a passing mention.
Antonio Regalado at MIT Technology Review noticed that too and broached the subject with a Google PR person.
“The surprise came when a Google PR person told us the company was hesitant to participate in a story tied to the term ‘big data,’” writes Regalado in MIT Technology Review. “They’d prefer, they said, not to be associated with it. Why? I asked. ‘It’s too Big Brother-ish,’ came the answer.”
Visible discomfort over the term existed well before Edward Snowden sounded his shrill Big Brother alarm over the NSA using big data to find terrorists. Certainly recent events haven’t made the environment any friendlier for the term or the companies engaged with the act, but make no mistake, everyone in big data saw this day coming.
This is why Google and other big data leaders have been publicly mum about the term for a very long time. They were, in effect, attempting to stall the inevitable.
The word “big” does conjure scary thoughts in the public mind. However, the word “data” is as familiar as an old shoe to most people. Supersizing the term however triggers a public mental shift from feeling powerful to feeling powerless.
For example, most people are comfortable with their doctor having all the data he or she needs on their most private of health details. However, those same patients are not necessarily at ease with insurance companies, public health departments, university students, pharmaceutical R&D departments, drug stores, and other unnamed entities having access to their information.
This is because patients feel they have control over their data when they give a doctor permission to collect it. But they feel powerless if that information is shared with other entities and added to a pool of data on other patients. From that unease, in part, came the HIPAA regulations.
Notice that the use of big data in health was not stopped–it was, however, regulated to ensure individual privacy is protected. Similar regulation to protect individual privacy elsewhere will probably be put in place soon, as it should be.
It is doubtful, however, that Google and other companies were dodging the term “big data” in an attempt to avoid privacy regulations from coming to be. In many ways, having such regulations would be a relief because companies could stop fearing an unpredictable future problem and work within a set of rules to prevent problems from occurring. Not that any industry welcomes regulation, and certainly big data users are no exception, but not knowing what you could be penalized for in the future isn’t a safe and comfortable place to be either.
The motivation to avoid the term is more likely centered on avoiding a potential fearful and overblown reaction from the public that could be far more devastating to company profits. A mental image of villagers with pitchforks and torches comes to mind–even though, ironically, it is infinitely more likely that the villagers in this case would use Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and other products and services owned by big data companies to attack big data users. In the end, for big data companies the fire would burn just as hot, if not hotter, on a virtual torch.
Just Don’t Call it Big Data
Why Google fears the totalitarian connotations of the buzzword big data.
Spies with the U.S. National Security Agency are hoovering up huge amounts of digital data on Americans, including records of every phone call, and may have wide access to Internet traffic, too.
The top secret documents describing the NSA’s efforts were leaked by Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old contractor now hiding out somewhere in Hong Kong. Snowden, who took the unusual step of coming forward, claimed the NSA could see pretty much everything, simply by “abusing” the commercial structure of the Internet.
“The Internet,” said Snowden, “is a TV that watches you.” The imagery, of course, is straight out of George Orwell’s 1984.
Snowden’s bombshell is that the government is watching, and might be doing so illegally. But here’s something we already know: Internet companies routinely “spy” on Internet surfers. They track whatever they can and sell the data to advertisers. It’s all right there in their terms of service.
Isn’t it funny how we sometimes forget?
That reminded me of a remarkable interaction MIT Technology Review had last month with Google. For our recent series on big data (see “Big Data Gets Personal”), we’d been trying to get access to write a story about Google’s internal human-resources team, which uses lots of data-crunching to make personnel decisions.
The surprise came when a Google PR person told us the company was hesitant to participate in a story tied to the term “big data.” They’d prefer, they said, not to be associated with it. Why? I asked. “It’s too Big Brother-ish,” came the answer.
Obviously, Google, the company that wants to organize the world’s information, is up to its eyeballs in big data. It invented some of the key technologies, like MapReduce, and even some of the NSA’s software are reportedly just copies of Google ideas. In 2011, Tim O’Reilly ranked Google CEO Larry Page the world’s most powerful data scientist, saying that he’d “pushed the boundaries of what is possible with big data.”
Yet digging around a little, it looks to me like Google has all but banned “big data” from its communication with consumers. So far as I can determine, neither Google’s founders, Page and Sergey Brin, nor its chairman Eric Schmidt, have ever uttered the words big data in public (please correct me in the comments section if I’m wrong). A search of Google’s press releases also turns up exactly zero occurrences of the term.
Other companies, like Intel, aren’t nearly so shy about big data. You’ll find them talking about it a lot. But Intel is selling server chips to technology companies, including Google. It’s not addressing consumers directly. Some other consumer Internet firms, like Facebook, also seem to steer away from big data, at least in their press releases.
Big data does appear in some of Google’s communications. It shows up in job ads and in notes to developers. It has to, because big data is what Google really does. Should we be troubled they don’t want the rest of us to remember that?
[Update: A sharp-eyed reader points out that Eric Schmidt makes a passing reference to “the age of big data” at 4:35 in this video from a recent invitation-only Google event.]