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As big data use explodes, Verizon strategist explores the 'data self'

More data on the Web may spawn the idea of 'a data self,' says Verizon strategist and big data security specialist Wilco van Ginkel.

When Wilco van Ginkel looks at something as simple as a Google search, he sees it differently than most people. For van Ginkel, today's Web searches say things about data, identity, security, privacy and more. That is all part of the job of being a strategic thinker in the age of big data.

Wilco Van Ginkel, Verizon StrategistWilco van Ginkel

"Today, if each of us goes to Google and searches on the term big data security, we each get a slightly different page back," said van Ginkel, who is a senior strategist with Verizon Enterprise Solutions, working out of Amherst, Nova Scotia, Canada. For him, this is characteristic of shifts underway as new changes in technology alter the nature of people's relationship to data.

For example, the browser history of individuals is constantly gathered by Google, and it becomes a representation of an individual's persona or a "data self," as van Ginkel calls it. Today we do not have a lot of say in how our data selves are created and used.

But that may change in the future as individuals become increasingly aware of the information they create while traversing the World Wide Web.

"There is an inescapable increase and dependency on technology and data," van Ginkel said. "People are becoming aware of this, and corporations are beginning to take note too."

The rise of big data and increasing awareness of the data self may eventually allow individuals to exert greater control over the use of the information they share with Web sites, according to van Ginkel. He sees the seeds of the data self in the budding "Quantified Self" movement in which people track their eating habits, exercise regimes, vital signs and more.

The common thread in my career is that I like to outthink systems … to come up with ideas that are not conventional.

Wilco van Ginkel,
senior strategist, Verizon Enterprise Solutions

Another example of the road to a data self, he said, may be seen in undertakings such as the RespectNetwork.com, which envisions a framework that allows users to connect to online data, devices and applications through a personal cloud network adhering to specific standards of trust. Relatively new "do-not-track" browser settings are emerging as one way to protect data personas that may become more common in the future. [Ed. note: Van Ginkel said that he mentions specific companies as examples. These are his opinions, not those of Verizon.]

A future that included the data self would see consumers share their data in return for a benefit, perhaps even a fee. This is the kind of innovative notion van Ginkel likes to mentally chew on.

Data evangelist hits the road

Van Ginkel's work is ambitious. He describes it as an effort to create a framework for a new view on data. The effort often means hitting the road and heading far from his home base in Nova Scotia. He works to move industry discussions on new data architecture forward as part of the Cloud Security Alliance standards group that is focused on emerging big data security issues. That group recently published a report on big data security and privacy issues.

Van Ginkel has presented his thoughts on the future of security and big data in the enterprise and larger society at industry events like the Defcon and BlackHat hacker conferences, and, more recently, the Conference on Big Data Security in Boston.

Thinking about security has been a preoccupation at least since the '90s when he worked as an IT auditor for Windows, Unix, Novell and AS/400 systems at consultant Ernst and Young in his native Netherlands. Before coming to Verizon, van Ginkel did stints at Fortis Bank and CyberTrust, which was purchased by Verizon in 2007.

"The common thread in my career is that I like to outthink systems," he said. "I like to come up with ideas or methodologies that are not conventional."

Student days: Hacking systems

In his master's thesis at Eindhoven University, van Ginkel described a model for evaluating managed security providers. A shining example that highlights just how van Ginkel's mind works happened during college days.

At the university, students were not allowed to take more than five exams in a single week. He wanted to do more, and discovered that, by logging onto two different terminals at the same time, he was able to exceed the five-exam limit.

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There was an unexpected aftereffect. "This created a lock down of the system," he said, showing a bit of amusement.

He admits to an inner drive to circumvent systems and processes, but "not to do evil." He resembles other software experts in the "white hat" or "ethical" hacker movement, who love to unravel puzzles and defenses, but who do not do so maliciously or for profit.

Van Ginkel's quest is to imagine alternatives. "I like to think out of the box," he said.

In his public presentations, van Ginkel urges his audience to imagine alternatives. He asks them to visualize future roles of data in commerce and private lives. But he acknowledges that foundational change will take time.

"The data-self concept is a great concept. It turns the whole data ecosystem upside down. It's a different way of thinking," he told a crowd at the Conference on Big Data Security in Boston.

The advent of fully formed data selves is still in the future, for both individuals and companies, van Ginkel said. Much work has to be done first just to make sure that Web data is as secure as it can possibly be.

Van Ginkel admits that, while in his office, he is sometimes able to stare into space and just think or muse. Again, fortunately, that is part of the job of a strategic thinker on big data.

This was first published in August 2013

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Change agents: Leaders in information management technology

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