Big Data is watching

Big Brother vs. Personal Data Fusion: Why the “Personal” is So Important

People have started talking about Personal Data Fusion — the idea that artificial intelligence technology can filter the flood of incoming information and present it in a way we can digest and use. Microsoft’s $26B acquisition of LinkedIn was driven in part to feed the company’s Personal Data Fusion product, Cortana.

To turn the data firehose into a nice cup of tea, these Personal Data Fusion systems need to tap into our communication apps, calendars, social media accounts, news services, enterprise workflow apps, systems of record, etc. In contrast to human beings, who can be overloaded by a deluge of data, the more information these Personal Data Fusion systems access, the more intelligent they are. And that’s good for everyone, right?

Well, maybe. But if you are human, the previous paragraph probably sent a few shivers up your spine… and the word “privacy” may have come to mind. When you talk to employees about bringing all of their data together, the first response is: “wow, it would be amazing to have artificial intelligence help me manage an unmanageable flow of communication… but who exactly is going to have access and how are they going to use it?”

In 1999, Scott McNealy famously told a group of reporters and analysts at a new product launch, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” Largely, that is true. Formal privacy protections are virtually non-existent in private corporations. Meanwhile, every bit of technology — smartphones, handheld computers, wearables, RFID, video, email, web browsers — now captures digital breadcrumbs of our interaction at work and beyond. It is unquestionably “big data.”

But is big data also big brother?

The answer depends on the answer to one simple question: is all of that data for the person who generates it (helping me learn and succeed with personalized productivity tools), or is it for the people who monitor and analyze the person who generates it (management looking over my shoulder and second-guessing me)? In the former case, it’s Personal Data Fusion. In the later, it’s big brother surveillance. That’s why the personal in Personal Data Fusion is so important. Like a personal assistant or a personal organizer, Personal Data Fusion is there to serve you. An increasing body of research is finding that when data fusion is used for surveillance, it’s actually counterproductive.

Why? When we are over-observed, our performance suffers. Workers waste time and effort to make sure their data is nicely packaged, hiding all of their unfinished, in-process, experimental, and innovative work. For the same reason we shred personal documents before throwing them out (lest the garbage scavengers find our old love letters), professionals reject the tools that are designed to increase productivity by tapping into raw workflows. They opt out to stay hidden. A perfect example: most sales professionals use paper notebooks instead of entering notes in the corporate CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system because paper stays private. Sadly, it also gets forgotten, along with promising opportunities.

We can approach the natural human resistance to total surveillance in one of two ways.

Option 1: Design technology to prevent opting out.

Make it impossible, or at least expensive or inconvenient, for users to find workarounds. Mobile phone mapping, navigation, and ride-hailing apps are so extraordinarily useful that few users choose to withhold their location data. And with self-driving cars, the imperative to disclose where you are and where you’re going will get even stronger. At work, companies can monitor external email traffic and block access to personal email services at work, so employees cannot hide communication with customers or vendors. Of course, resourceful employees will turn to LinkedIn, so that has to be blocked, too… and then Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, and so on. On the other hand, if Microsoft opened up LinkedIn relationship data for bosses to monitor, it wouldn’t be long before professionals would stop using LinkedIn, and the data supply would dry up.

Human beings have been keeping things private about as long as they’ve been on the earth, and we’re pretty good at it. As children, we stashed our diaries under the mattress. As adults, we figure out that email is monitored but Evernote is not, and we hide our personal notes where they won’t be found. When government passes Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws requiring that all written materials be accessible to the public, people stop writing things down. When our companies start monitoring everything on our company-issued iPhone, we carry a second device for the “real stuff.”

If history has proven anything, it is that we should have faith in the capacity of human ingenuity to hide personal data from others.

Option 2: Recognize that professionals often hide things for good reasons and design systems explicitly to provide personal space.

In other words, design for front-line professionals, not senior managers. Personal space in a Personal Data Fusion system is the virtual equivalent of the filing cabinet in your office (or, for those of us who don’t have filing cabinets anymore, the equivalent of “under the mattress” at work). Of course employers have every right to access the files, but in practice cabinets effectively conceal early drafts, half-baked ideas, and politically sensitive proposals because professionals generally don’t poke around in each other’s cabinets without permission. Professional etiquette demands a degree of respect and a reasonable process for managing access. In much the same way that physical obstacles indicate the boundaries of personal space in the offline world, Personal Data Fusion apps must incorporate virtual obstacles to mark personal space in the online world.


In our globalized knowledge economy, option 1 is self-defeating. Even when professionals can be coerced or persuaded to cooperate with big brother technology, the organization’s productivity may suffer and learning may slow down or cease entirely. Conversely, organizations that choose option 2 will achieve greater agility through Personal Data Fusion technology that enables front-line professionals while protecting their personal space.

Consider an example from research conducted by one of us. In a controlled experiment on a factory assembly line, workers shielded by curtains from the prying eyes of others became 10–15% more productive, a very meaningful difference for profitability of these back-end assembly lines. And for high-value knowledge work that’s more complex and creative, the value of respecting personal space is probably even greater.

Big Brother may win some battles, but we predict that Personal Data Fusion will win the war, along with organizations enlightened enough to keep personal data… well, personal.

This Medium article was co-authored by Ethan Bernstein and David Brunner. David and Ethan met in 2007 when they were each doing their doctoral degrees at Harvard Business School. David Brunner is the founder of ModuleQ, a company founded to develop Personal Data Fusion technology so professionals can perform at their best. Ethan Bernstein serves on ModuleQ’s Board of Directors and is a shareholder of the company. He is a professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the Harvard Business School, where he studies the implications of privacy and transparency on the productivity of organizations.