TECH | May 23, 2017

How important are data in today’s economy?

How Open Source Intelligence promotes the collection of valuable data.

It has been talked about for many years. Discussions were already under way in 2006 on the role of information in the market economy. One of the views was: “Data is the new oil. It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc. to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analyzed for it to have value“. This was the view at the time of Clive Humby, a mathematician from Sheffield, founder of Dunnhumby and Starcount, companies that have made data processing a lucrative business.

The same concept has been picked up on innumerable occasions over time. All it takes is a Google search with Data is the new oil keywords to realize that the “datum=money” concept is widespread and also shared at high levels (see, for example, the paper published for the World Economic Forum 2011).

But are data really money?

There are those who do not think the same way. In fact, Neil Lawrence argues: “Data is the new coal“.

Lawrence was a professor at Sheffield University until last year before being hired by Amazon and this already says much about the value of his ideas. He explains the analogy between coal and data in this way. When the steam engine was invented by Newcomen in 1712, those who benefited from it were the owners of coal mines. Indeed, although the steam engine could benefit other types of business, the purchase of the coal necessary for its operation made it uneconomical. It is the same for data, says Lawrence. Creating a new algorithm, devising a new method for analyzing social graphs or, for example, for finding a way to prevent cancer by analyzing the data of people (as in The Circle, Dave Eggers, 2013) is not particularly useful if there are no data to analyze.

In any case, whichever way you look at it, whether it’s a question of coal, oil or data, we can say that every era has its own “fuel” that is capable of making an engine turn. And here the leap to search engines on Internet is far too easy.

Cosmo, the character in the film “Sneakers” (1992), says: “There’s a war out there, old friend. A world war. And it’s not about who’s got the most bullets. It’s about who controls the information. What we see and hear, how we work, what we think … it’s all about the information!” Information is power. Economic power, military power, political power. Think, for example, of being able to know the enemy’s moves in advance, where the troops and military resources are. Think of political clashes, based on more or less embarrassing revelations. Think of marketing operations, which could be designed on the basis on information gathered about one’s competitors. It also means having the potential to counter crime and terrorism using the techniques of one’s intelligence agencies.

Where is information to be found?

The answer is easy. Everything can be found on Internet. Personal profiles on social media, open data of public administration, big data from various types of organizations, leaks, etc.

The second problem is identifying the necessary data, checking them, evaluating them and filtering them. A datum taken on its own might have no practical meaning, and so be worthless. Having large amounts of data that are unrelated to each other or unrelated to other data does not create that added value which, on the other hand, verifiable and thus “actionable” information has. This is a neologism that I really like. It means “that can be used as the basis for taking action“. Information that is “usable” for some purpose.

The techniques that are used to find the information useful or necessary for a specific purpose go by the name of “OSINT”, standing for “Open Source INTelligence“. It should be pointed out that “Open Source” does not refer to open licenses for software but to the type of sources consulted and analyzed in order to obtain the information that is being sought. Only freely available sources are used in OSINT, without making use of espionage or illegal techniques. With the advent of Internet, the chances of finding the information being sought have multiplied thanks to the immense amount of data that users – as well as all types of companies, bodies and institutions – pour into their accounts every second, without forgetting the traditional media which have found new raison d’être  in online services.

The techniques used are the classic techniques of intelligence combined with good computer skills, imagination, persistence, intuition and a bit of luck. You might be amazed at the information you can extract, for example, from a photo published on a corporate site or from analysis of posts on social media.

Finally, we are closing the circle: we have a huge container of information and the techniques for extracting it. We just have to ask the right questions.