Shining a Light on Dark Data

[Author’s note – this posts uses the term “Dark Data” which is an outdated term. Learn more about the problem with the term’s use of “dark” at Intuit’s content design manual.]

Welcome to this week’s Tip of the Hat!

Also, welcome to the first week of Daylight Savings Time in most of the US! To celebrate the extra hour of daylight in the morning (we at LDH are early birds), we will shed light on a potential privacy risk at your organization – dark data.

The phrase “dark data” might conjure up images of undiscovered data lurking in the dark back corner of a system. It could also bring to mind a similar image of the deep web where the vast amount of data your organization has is hidden to the majority of your staff, with only a handful of staff having the skills and knowledge to find this data.

The actual meaning of the phrase is much less dramatic. Dark data refers to collected data that is not used for analysis or other organizational purposes. This data can appear in many places in an organization: log files, survey results, application databases, email, and so on. The business world views dark data as an untapped organizational asset that will eventually serve a purpose, but for now, it just takes up space in the organization.

While the reality of dark data is less exciting than the deep web, the potential privacy issues of dark data should be taken seriously. The harm isn’t that the organization doesn’t know what it’s collecting – dark data is not unknown data. One factor that leads to dark data in an organization is the “just in case” rationale used to justify data collection. For example, a project team might set up a new web application to collect patron demographic information such as birth date, gender, and race/ethnicity not because they need the data right now, but because that data might be needed for a potential report or analysis in the future. Not having the data when the need arises means that you could be out on important insights and measures that could sway decision-makers and the future of operations. It is that fear of not having that data, or data FOMO, that drives this collection of dark data.

When you have dark data that is also patron or other sensitive data, you put your organization and patrons at risk. Data sitting in servers, applications, files, and other places in your organization are subject to being leaked, breached, or otherwise subject to unauthorized access by others. This data is also subject to disclosure by judicial subpoenas or warrants. If you choose to collect dark data, you choose to collect a toxic asset that will only become more toxic over time, as the risk of a breach, leak, or disclosure increases. It’s a matter of when, not if, the dark data is compromised.

Dark data is a reality at many organizations in part because it’s very easy to collect without much thought. The strategies in minimizing the harms that come with dark data require some forethought and planning; however, once operationalized, these strategies can be effective in reducing the dark data footprint in your organization:

  • Tying data collection to demonstrated business needs – When you are deciding what data to collect, be it through a survey, a web application, or even your system logs, what data can be tied back to a demonstrated business need? Orienting your data collection decisions to what is needed now for operational purposes and analysis shifts the mindset away from “just in case” collection to what data is absolutely needed.
  • Data inventories – Sometimes dark data is collected and stored and falls off the radar of your organization. Conducting regular data inventories of your organization will help identify any potential dark data sets for review and action.
  • Retention and deletion policies – Even if dark data continues to persist after the above strategies, you have one more strategy to mitigate privacy risks. Retention policies and proper deletion and disposal of electronic and physical items can limit the amount of dark data sitting in your organization.

The best strategies to minimize dark data in your organization happens *before* you collect the data. Asking yourself why you need to collect this data in the first place and looking at the system or web application to see what data is collected by default will allow you to identify potential dark data and prevent its collection.