By Tom Still


Toss out the term “big data” at a cocktail party and you may get three or four definitions about what it means – along with a few blank stares from friends who never realized you were actually that boring. 


Because I truly am that boring, I feel compelled to tell you more about how big data matters in your personal and business lives – and why you shouldn’t be lunging for the shrimp dip right now in an effort to break away.  


Some people define big data as simply a lot of digital information in a relational database, which is a collection of information tables that help drive any computer. But that’s not giving the sheer size and complexity of the “big data” term due credit. 


Others say big data is sets of data so large that they cannot be efficiently handled by traditional databases. That’s closer, but still no cigar; data warehouses have done some of that for years. 


Big data is really a product of the worldwide explosion in digital data, some of which is stored in data warehouses but some of which is captured through social media – platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and many more. This combination enables complex profiles of consumer habits, security threats and other patterns, personal or mass, that can be predictive of human behavior. 


As industry writer Danny Bradbury recently noted, “Big data sets are massive pools of data, designed to answer questions that people don’t even know they want the answer to.”  


Making sense of how to collect, store, use and protect your own byte of “big data” was a theme of the Sept. 18 Resource Rendezvous at UW-Milwaukee, where about 80 people gathered to hear from cybersecurity experts and others from the worlds of research, business and defense. 


Among them was Chris D’Agostino, president and chief technology officer of Altamira Technologies, a firm from northern Virginia that works in areas ranging from national security to helping private companies mine, analyze and protect their own data. 


With the Snowden affair and the National Security Agency’s data-gathering operations in the public eye, there’s no doubt that big data has developed a mysterious or even threatening image. What does “big brother” know about us and how will that information be used? 


The flip side of the question is how big data helps to protect us from threats, potential or otherwise, by processing a collection of seemingly random information. D’Agostino talked about how some of the same tools used to chart security trends can also help businesses better understand their markets and customers. 


Protecting data is an emerging problem for government and business alike, he added. Here are some ways D’Agostino believes organizations can lose valuable data. 


–       Session hijacking. This takes place when someone uses a non-secure Internet site, one lacking Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocols for managing the security of a transmission. This is how some financial accounts are hacked. 


–       Trusted insiders. “If someone leaves your organization, how long is their e-mail account active and what does that mean to your security?” D’Agostino asked. Be sure to manage access control and privileges, he advised. 


–       Insecure APIs, or application program interfaces. These are sets of routines, protocols and tools for building software applications. He recommended a layered system architecture.  


–       Insufficient due diligence. “Stitching together technologies is hard. Glue-code can make it worse,” he said. 


–       Cloud abuse. Some hackers use the Internet to launch “denial of service” attacks that can slow or cripple business operations – or reveal keys to encrypted information. 


–       Different technology vendors. Be sure vendors and systems work together to enhance security. 


D’Agostino noted that 90 percent of the world’s digital information has been created since 2010, a stunning figure driven by the surge in social media, video and other sources. Research into how to protect big data is growing with the amount of data being collected. 


In Wisconsin, a cybersecurity center being built by the Wisconsin Security Research Consortium, a non-profit group with statewide ties, will help academic researchers and companies alike learn more about how to protect that data. The center should be operational by early 2014. 


Big data matters to business, and so does protecting it. And if you read this far, maybe you’re boring, too.