Competitive Intelligence and Online Privacy, NSA Leaks from Edward Snowden

In preparation for attending the Privacy Identify Innovation conference here in Seattle with peers, my recent conversations have been around the  kind of data that Edward Snowden and related NSA leaks stirred up.


These conversations live in another dimension almost as spooky as the Twilight Zone.

While the NSA is in the center of this issue, we should think about the thousands of companies that have access to our personal information.

Through these companies there are an untold number of individuals who have access to our digital homes without our knowledge. Some of them knowingly allow access (while others do it accidentally.)

We have dropped the ball: not only as companies and organizations in the U.S., but as a global society we have absolutely failed to understand how the Internet of everything relates to metro, regional, ethical, and moral audiences around the world.

If this was my house it would  be leaving my front door unlocked and leaving it unattended. When we have a digital version of our home we need to give a little bit of thought about the benefits and risks associated to it.

  • We have to keep in mind that data isn’t limited to live where it is created.
  • It isn’t limited to a time or place.
  • It is a universe of information that covers both historical and future possibilities.
  • Our digital neighborhood isn’t local- it is global.

We need to ask questions about who may visit our home.

What do they know about me?

This is a big question. 

You need to have a grasp of the questions below before you can really begin to identify what they know about you.

If someone is interested in you they have decided you are worth a certain amount of effort.

The reality of the situation is that there are a lot of rocks to kick over and look under.

When competitive intelligence professionals like myself get involved there is a level of strategic and investigative research that takes place using all sorts of systems that help look under rocks quickly.

Examining what is under each rock cost a little bit of money and effort. If I have intent and reason to turn over thousands of rocks I will find out more about you than being lazy and turning over just one.

The speed at which this investigation can take place depends on the tools and the likelihood that the research effort will be rewarded with knowledge.

Thinking about who really has access to the data

When I turn on the typical desktop computer there are dozens of companies involved with the security of the data.

A basic example of typical computer privacy points:

  • The Brand/Creator of the PC
  • CPU Manufacturer
  • RAM Memory Manufacturer
  • BIOS programmer
  • Video Card
  • Wireless Processor
  • High Speed Modem
  • Network Router


  • Adobe Flash
  • Java
  • Microsoft Office
  • Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer (with several dozen plugins)
  • Internet is supplied by Comcast (Comcast router boxes, relay junctions, data stores, etc)

Web Services

  • Banking
  • Utility Payments
  • Mobile Services
  • Entertainment (Netflix, etc)
  • Social Networks (Facebook, Linkedin, etc)
  • Communication tools (email, digital phone, etc)

Securing the basic elements above almost requires a degree in rocket science.

Yet as a society of web enabled users we’ve thrown caution to the wind and have opted-in to all sorts of things like social networks and freemium web services.

Multiply the basic example above for laptops, tablets, mobile phones, etc.

Facebook is an amazing example of our blunder.

Over a billion people have joined the site and have given access to our profiles, social networks, and personal communications.

In addition to what we share on, Facebook scripts and widgets run on tens of millions of sites.

These scripts cover a range of login, recommendation, analytics, and sharing functions.

If you were to figure out the combined data collection of Facebook across all of these sites you’d have trillions of interactions.

But we also have Google who has access to sites with

  • Google Analytics
  • Google Webmaster
  • Google Adsense
  • Google Content Networks
  • Google Gmail
  • Google Docs

When you overlap just the properties and data collection points of Google and Facebook you end up with information on almost the entire web using population. 

The NSA may have access to that data… but who else?

While the NSA may have access, I wouldn’t typically focus on whether the NSA has it.

You should be focusing on people and organizations that seek you harm (if the NSA has reason to cause you harm, then worry about the NSA.)

Google and Facebook don’t necessarily want to harm us, but they do want to make a few dollars in profit.

The core item to think about is that there are thousands of businesses in the industry of collecting and monetizing our data or using it for harmful or monetary purposes. These include data brokers, financial organizations, major employers, and big retail brands. They also include criminal and military organizations.

The information they are collecting is specifically important to the intent of why they are collecting it.

You can help figure out where you sit in the big picture as both an individual and as a business by running through a series of questions.

What are the problems?

Data will always be created and collected by some process.

The core problem comes from the question of Good vs Evil?

Good uses:

  • Trying to use the data to improve the education system of a local town.
  • Supporting entrepreneurs to create green, sustainable business.
  • Helping third would countries raise the standard living.

Bad Uses:

  • Identifying an individual’s commute time to work so robbers know when the house is empty.
  • Discriminating against employees based on what was perceived as private.
  • Disabling a city utility by crashing the utility grid.

Why are they collecting data?

Most organizations use online data to define and segment millions of users into a size they can interact with.

They want to strategically locate communities and individuals who matter to them.

This usually revolves around simple items such as:

  • How many interactions?
  • How many relationships?
  • How many transactions?
  • How many habits?

 Who is using it?

The answer to who is using it creates a number of tangents to think about:

  • Where are they?
  • How do they store it?
  • Do they sell it?
  • Do they abuse it?
  • Do they learn from it?
  • Where do they have interests?

What laws am I dealing with?

As you answer the above questions about you begin to identify the legal structures of where your data lives.

In the U.S. we have some very specific ideas about privacy and freedom of speech. These same ideas may not apply around the globe.

  • Where does all that data live?
  • Who owns the lines it moves across?
  • What jurisdictions apply to the servers?
  • What companies have access?
  • What employees have access?
  • What criminals have access?

What ethics am I dealing with?

With some of the legal concepts detailed we can begin to think about ethical and moral uses of the data.

Some cultures and countries have wildly different ethical and moral concepts.

  • Do they want to hurt/help me?
  • Do they want to hurt/help my family/friends?
  • Do they want to hurt/help my company?
  • Do they want to hurt/help my country?

What can I do about it?

The key to protection is understanding.

#1 – write down a list of things that are most important to you.

#2 – write down a list of people who want to hurt you.

#3- ask an expert to detail ways #1 and #2 interact.

#4- Create a plan for protecting the things most important to you can be used by people wanting to hurt you.

#5- Apply a scenario to two or three organizations you don’t like and ask yourself what you can do to them.

These basic steps will wildly vary in results depending on if  individual and group perspective.

By understanding value vs risk you can allocate where your effort will produce the most protection.


Social Media Analytics and Big Data ROI

eMarketer wrote a brief piece on linking digital data to ‘big data’ that caught my eye with some interesting research from the New York Marketing Association.

While I have written hundreds of pages on social media analytics in the past, I’m still troubled by the focus of social media being directed/controlled/managed within the marketing silo.

I’m hoping the trend of social business (instead of social marketing) will continue in the direction it is heading, but I fear that the core issues of properly identifying analytics that count are still outside the reach of 99.9% of marketing executives (and outside 99.99% of business executives in general.)


The #1 Problem of Social Media Analytics

social media analysisAccording to the survey, the number one obstacle of measuring ROI of marketing is lack of sharing data across the organizagtion.

While I agree with the #1 problem: it isn’t limited to marketing ROI.

It encompasses the ROI of the entire business.

If we don’t examine other business silos that have inherent ties to social data and streamlined knowledge management, we fail to realize ROI in PR, product development, customer retention, talent acquisition, process refinement, and executive leadership.

Any one of those ROI areas could be the ‘magic bullet’ that defines an organization as a market leader or as an unknowing victim of business evolution.

Problem #2 – The Shelf Life of Data

social media data and realtime metricsIf you are nimble and fast moving, social media analytics and real time data can be amazing.

The problem with that statement is the requirement that you are nimble and fast moving.

In most enterprise organizations it days weeks or months to make simple direction changes. This makes real-time data collected in the past hour nearly worthless…. sure you know that an iceburg is right in front of you, but you simply can’t turn fast enough to avoid it.



Problem #3 – It isn’t ‘big data’ ; it is ‘evolving data’

social media data, analysis, analytics

In addition to thinking about social media analytics from a marketing perspective, current definition of the social data silos revolving around the term of ‘big data’ are contaminated in my opinion.

Examining the answers from the survey: we no longer have demographic, customer, social media, and mobile phone data.

All we have is ‘evolving data’

Mobile data = Social data = Customer data = Demographic data

We have a constant pipeline of new data points that are injecting thousands of invaluable data assets into our current business processes from hundreds of sources.


The End Crisis – Analysis Paralysis

The massive injection of data is completely disrupting most executives ability to take actionable decisions.

We have executives who are simply looking at a Web 3.0 chessboard and they are trying to interpret the market they are playing in by traditional rules of chess. They don’t realize (and or accept) that the rules are changing on a daily basis and that entirely new pieces are being played.

When we combine analysis paralysis with marketing isolation (problem #1), slow reaction time (problem #2), and changing market data (problem #3) we end up with an interesting business dilemna.

What other problems are social media analytics facing?

Creating Social Media Dashboards

The act of being alive today creates an immense stream of social data. A whole industry has developed around creating social media dashboards for monitoring social conversation, but the reality is that social media dashboard solutions are fairly cookie-cutter and all utilize the same data sources.

What if I want to create a custom visualization of my own data combined with everything else? If I choose one of the existing dashboards I’m pretty much limited to what ever that monitoring company believes is important to the general audience.

Free is nice, but you generally get what you pay for. When it comes to discovering competitive business insight through data analysis the devil is in the details. You need to think about your social data and business impacts from a thousand different viewpoints before you discover your epiphany.

+If you are like me, I generally don’t fall in the cookie cutter category. I am constantly asking the questions that matter (to me.)

Some of the right questions…

How much budget do I have to work with?

You should be thinking about the entire process you need to complete. Creating your own social dashboard or getting a license for an existing one is only a fraction of the project. You should make sure that you have enough budget set aside for research, strategy, training, integration, and business conversion. My general rule is that a dashboard should generally take less than 20% of the project budget (it is an important piece, but not the only piece.)

How much time do I have?

Creating a socia media dashboard requires you to understand some of the cogs that are going to be built into the visualization. You either have to spend time learning these cogs or set aside budget for having a consultant help you.

How accurate does it need to be?

One of my biggest grudges about most of the cookie cutter solutions out there is accuracy. I’m amazed by the ‘fluffy’ data that originates from platforms ranging in cost from $20 to $10k a month.

Who is using it?

The larger your organization, the more people who will probably need access to it. You need to develop a list of the who, where, why, when, and how people in your organization are going to access and act on the information in your social media dashboard.

Where can I promote the data?

It is essential that this data is seen. The saying goes “out of sight, out of mind” – you need to make plans to actively display your social media dashboard in a manner that keeps the data front and center with the people who it matters to.

What is data privacy?

A lot of people in the industry don’t want to talk about this part. Many of the cookie-cutter SAAS solutions out there service competitive accounts and don’t really keep things properly contained. Account managers are often looking at SAAS clients and examining what types of data are being tracked by what types of clients. This data is used to help other clients make changes to their tracking solutions and eventually used to make upgrades to the platform. *If I assumed my organization was an industry leader, I’d rather not have my data insight be used as a tool to help a dozen competitors.

(if you want to read more about questions you should be asking, check out my article on 40+ Social Media Dashboards)

Tools for creating Social Media Dashboards

I’m not going to lie.

There are a million tools to create social media dashboards.

I’ve seen enterprise level social media dashboards that look like they were drawn on napkins and freemium ones that were delightful user experiences.

The real trick is identifying the right tool for the right job.

Just because it looks pretty doesn’t mean it works well. It also doesn’t mean it is accurate, consistent, or even worthwhile.
You have to think of your social media dashboard from both a functional and a design perspective.

– Starting with completely free web code like HTML and PHP, you can create some pretty simple web dashboards. I wouldn’t recommend going into the realm of site coding unless you have someone on your project team that is comfortable playing with these tools.

– Open sources solutions like WordPress and Drupal. While both of these systems are traditionally thought of as blog platforms, they both operate as effective methods of posting and collecting information with the right plugins. I’ve personally developed several whiz-bang dashboards on WordPress.

– I also rely on Microsoft Excel and Access. These are the easiest tools to examine some basic data conclusions and are readily available to most users. Using some of the built-in charts allows me to quickly compare a few sets of data to help refine my end target.

– Microsoft Powerpoint is also a commonly overlooked tool. Create a few basic objects in Powerpoint and create mock-ups of what types of data should be where. This process generally lets me share a half dozen visualization samples so that I can get input from the working team to move cogs around.

Getting more advanced…

When working with web data I commonly show examples. Google Images is critical for this. Simply doing a search on Google Images for “industry + dashboard” gives me some ideas to how other people visualize data.

When I’m done with my basic strategy I turn towards a list of tools

These tools each have some useful applications. There is no magic bullet or one size fits all winner.

User Analytics

Don’t forget to monitor who uses your dashboard.

One of the most important qualities to my social media dashboard is whether or not anyone will use it.

I want to know who, when, where, why.

I want to know what matters the most to that user and what role they play in the company.

If my data is useful and is presented properly, I will have a repeat user who consistently returns for more.

If I don’t have a repeat user I need to figure out why. I may have to change the presentation of the data, use different data, or train the person on why the data is important.

How does data impact your business?

What visualization and dashboard tools do you use to track social media? Do you think there are any inherent benefits or flaws associated to using an existing ‘social media dashboard?’