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2014: The Year of Big Data Leaks

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The past year was a good one for Big Data, mostly. Hadoop became a household word (among techie households, that is). Venture capital firms poured money into plenty of Big Data startups, including MongoDB, which locked down a $150-million investment, DataStax ($45 million), MapR Technologies ($30 million), and Skytree ($18 million). And IBM made Watson available as a development platform.

IBM also sent Watson to medical school, with the goal of having it pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination. Eventually, something like Watson could fit on a smartphone, monitoring your behaviors and diagnosing your evolving health risks.

That’s the good news. However, not all Big Data news was positive in 2013. The biggest Big Data news in 2013 centered on the NSA. Pretty much every crazy thing the tin-foil hat crowd worried about, the NSA was actually doing.

Edward Snowden’s relentless leaks finally snowballed a few weeks ago, prompting executives from major tech companies, including Apple, Google and Yahoo, to urge President Obama to reign in NSA spying. That’s a little rich, coming from a group of aggressive collectors of consumer data, but, well, let’s not nitpick. They’re right to call for reform, all hypocrisy aside.

Big Data Leaks in 2014

Looking ahead to 2014, various Big Data trends seem to be pointing in one direction: the need for purpose-built Big Data security tools and privacy reform.

I wish I could predict that 2014 will be the year of Big Data privacy and security, but this isn’t my first rodeo. We’ll need a heck of a lot more bad news before we start taking these risks seriously enough to invest the necessary time and money into fixing them.

The emergence of Big Data will radically change the risks associated with data breaches. In the past, cyber-crooks mainly sought discrete pieces of information, such as credit card numbers or user names and passwords. It’s not going to be long before cyber-crooks start breaking into databases to do their own data mining. They already do a primitive version of this on social networks, and it won’t be long before they want to know as much about you as Google does.

Cyber-crooks will leverage Big Data analytics not only to create better social-engineering attacks, but also to ratchet up the risks for anyone not meeting their demands.

Consider the biggest headline-grabbing malware from 2013: CryptoLocker. This nasty bit of ransomware encrypts infected users’ personal files (documents, photos, spreadsheets) and demands a ransom for the decryption key.

Now, imagine a piece of ransomware that knows about all of your unsavory secrets, whether that’s an affair with a high school sweetheart or the fact that you’re a Cleveland Browns fan. Rather than asking for a ransom to decrypt important files, Big-Data-driven ransomware will ask for money to keep embarrassing information off of your social networks.

Big Data Ransomware?

If you think this is far-fetched, my guess is that it’s already happening. The savviest of the cyber-bad guys know an opportunity when they see it. If the NSA believes that tracking the porn habits of radicals gives them the necessary ammo to discredit those radicals, it’s not much of a leap to believe that cyber-crooks will see a goldmine in that same pile of X-rated data.

This is why I think the major Big Data trend of 2014 will be Big Data leaks. We’ll go beyond the Snowden leaks to learn that many of those tech companies calling for reform are doing all sorts of things with our data that they told us they wouldn’t.

I also expect to see breaches in 2014 that target databases in order to gain information, rather than simply to steal credit card numbers. This could be political, smearing one candidate or another, or it could be a more sophisticated version of the vigilante sort of justice that Anonymous already undertakes.

I wish I could say 2014 will be the year that we get serious about Big Data risks and do something to mitigate them, but, unfortunately, I’m a bit too jaded and cynical to think the industry will get out ahead of the risks for a change. Rather, I predict that more major leaks are on the way, and we’ll see plenty of Big Data secrets splashed across the headlines in 2014. Then, and only then, will we wake up, and maybe 2015 will be the year we get serious about Big Data security.

Jeff Vance is a technology journalist based in Santa Monica, California. Follow him on Twitter @JWVance or add him to your Big Data circle on Google Plus.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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