Data Was An Asset, Now It’s A Liability

Why streamlining data is the way forward for businesses

Data was an asset, now it’s a liability. Businesses used to collect personal data like magpies picking up shiny things. Because you never know, right? Because it might come in handy, somehow, at some point in time.

Like a car-boot sale junk pile, the hoard grew and was hoped to contain something of value. The trick was to keep piling up junk until you could make something useful out of it… Warehouses, master data, lakes, strategies of ever-increasing complexity, opacity and cost that promised gold somewhere in all that rubble.

With the advent of GDPR and stiff, public sanctions for breaches, that tantalising horde, that garage full of collected niknaks, stuffed into boxes that have probably never been opened, has morphed from the imagined peaceful lake of data possibility into a disturbing, toxic landfill.

It’s ripe for a 13 year old kid with a handy knack of picking those old locks – installed long before your tenure – to impress a few friends by littering the neighbourhood with your unboxed stash.

It’s time to tidy up

The collective sharp intake of breath from across the internet is now loud enough to reach the ears of the media, as a swathe of people receive warning emails from the likes of ‘haveibeenpwned.com’ to say their information has appeared in a published data breach.

Any one of those exfiltrated records could pop, revealing a righteously angry data subject. Time to call Marie Kondo and clean up the house before someone lets themselves in to do it for you.

“But how can I let go of my stuff?” people ask – an understandable reaction. However, tidying up really is life changing. Your world gets a little simpler, a little more focused. There’s more wood than trees, you gain some velocity, there’s less to manage and, it turns out, most of it really was junk anyway.

Use it or lose it

Data has a half-life, which is to say it decays gradually and unpredictably. Consider home addresses: one in a million people will move home today, and more over a week, month, year, decade. Some will never move, but there’s no telling who is who.

Life is unpredictable. The longer data sits on the compost heap, the more inaccurate it becomes and there’s precious little you can do about it. At some level the cost – and efficacy – of cleaning and refreshing it outweighs the value of an ageing database.

Factor in the risk of a hefty fine and hoarding data really starts to look like an evolutionary cul-de-sac. The business holding the most data is the business sitting on the most risk, which means it needs to be the one spending the most time and effort on technical controls and policy protections.

Finding ways to delete, destroy or delegate data ownership means you can sleep a little easier. After all, there’s no point breaking into an empty bank vault – why waste all that time and effort for such a small reward? There’s pragmatism on both sides of the law.

If it doesn’t spark joy, let it go

This mindset shift will be easier for some than others – there are real reasons why some organisations need to hold data. The question is, could it make sense to update your model – to reduce the data you need to hold – or can your business bear the burden of good data governance? If it doesn’t spark joy, let it go.

Doing less is, as a principle, good for business. Doing less data storage is increasingly going to be a way to reduce risk, cost and complication. Invest in simplicity, reap the rewards of work not done.

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